Sunday, February 27, 2011

Winter #20: Snow-White, Snow-Quiet

6:20am-7am, Peters Hill and Bussey Brook Meadows, Arboretum, JP, MA
snow storm!

I always feel a little cheated when I get up for the promise of a full sunrise, only to see a grey swirling storm outside. "Dawn" doesn't count for much in these circumstances - in fact, I might hear more birds when it gets brighter later in the day.

Nonetheless, the combination of Sunday and snow falling means it's extra quiet, and the obscuring weather provides a kind of camouflage which allows me to creep a lot closer than usual to the birds on Peters Hill.

I merge with a tree and enjoy the flutter of robins landing and leaving, while the goldfinches go crazy. It was worth getting up to get this close to the finches!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Winter Update #19: Dusted

6:40-7:30am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
cool, fresh, a few cloud-wisps

After a full day of drizzle, drizzle, drizzle, it was quite a shock to see giant snowflakes coming down last night - a reminder that it is still winter, after all.

Today's landscape was pretty, if somewhat passé: a generous dusting made even piles of twigs turn into small works of art, and re-carpeted the paths to make way for fresh footprints.

On the other hand, there were a signs of spring's approach: a new bird, a falcon (or small hawk?) perched on a branch just above the path; a couple of geese settling into the now un-frozen marsh at the Meadows, and an adorable little chipmunk who darted out from a bush.

Today the chickadee orchestra took it away. I love their wavering "Hey Sweetie"s (sorry the recording is so faint)

Also, I am happy to report that last night, I gave my first official presentation/performance for "A Bird a Day", for a friendly audience at the Brookline Bird Club's Members' Night in Bedford, MA. Nice folks that allowed a novice like me to share!

I met many lovely people, all of whom know tons more about birds than me, including, excitingly, my first two human birdcallers for the human birdcalling chorus I am scheming up. Yay!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Winter #18: Unfazed

6:20am-6:50am, Bussey Hill, Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
cool and rainy

It was a grey-scale morning, with the snowy hill and overcast sky offering varying shades of blue-grey. I liked the phosphorescence of the snow, which glowed bright despite the dull dawn.

Besides a couple of elusive mourning doves, the only other birdsound right at dawn was the Yeti-like bleating of a cardinal. I don't know why Yeti comes to mind, but it does.

I eventually got pretty close to him in the Explorers' Garden on Bussey Hill, and hunkered down for a long hang with this strong singer, who didn't seem the least bit affected by the drizzle.

He had such a repertoire! I can't resist sharing a glimpse of the variety:
The Yeti, or Goat Bleat:


Up we Go/ Down we Go

A little hurried


Untitled #1

Untitled #2

There's something peaceful and still about a rainy morning- I'm grateful that the cardinal drew me into it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Winter #17: Live Guidance

6:20am-7:30am Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
clear and somewhat cold

What a treat! This morning I was joined by Marc Devokaitis, a real birder and musician who works in Visitor Education at the Arboretum.

It was a great morning for it - lots of birds out, in every corner of the Arboretum.

I was delighted to have someone to lob my bird questions at, including:
Who is that bird?? The Wee-er bird has been identified as an American Goldfinch! After months of mystery. They are in drab browns (not yellow) in the winter time.
Where are the best local spots for spring birding?
Millenium Park in West Roxbury is meant to be incredible.
When would I hear a screech owl?
Probably at dusk.

But I get ahead of myself. In addition to spotting my first "wild" song sparrow:

and getting this awesome human/mourning dove interaction (listen very closely):

the top highlight of the morning might just have to be my first-ever owl sighting.

Thanks to the Internet and generous birders, word has spread to Arboretum staff of a screech owl roosting over by north end of Bussey Hill (click here for directions). Marc was kind enough to show me the tree. As Marc put it:

I have to agree. Even though the old man was sleeping, and scarcely distinguishable from the trunk he was nestled in, it was thrilling to check out a real live owl. And there's something sweet about watching an animal while it sleeps.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Winter #16: My Street

6:35-7:05am, my street, Jamaica Plain, MA
not so cold, clear

Was a bit late, so I did the UMass lots sunrise and hung around my street. Lots of twittering sparrows.

Got to hang out with the bird next door again, and confirm that he is indeed a brown-striped Song Sparrow (not a purple-y striped Mystery Bird as I originally thought). I really like this guy! He is the most melodious bird so far of the winter.

I especially like the up-bubbly gesture in this song:

I have been working on my violin bird-calls, and it's really hard!
I often can't play high or fast enough for what I'm hearing.

Here are a few recent efforts:
Tufted titmouse goes ok because it's pitched reasonably and not too fast:
Original (from 2/11):

My version:

With the Cardinal, I have to fake some because I can't play the slide fast enough:
Original (from 2/13):

My version:

I'm also working on chickadee and the song sparrow - very difficult for their funky raspy timbres and super high pitches.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Winter Update #15: Insistence

6:20am-7:00am, Peters Hill, Arboretum
very cold, quite clear, some clouds at horizon

The sunrise was lovely, but I was too grumpy to enjoy it - achy and tired, maybe from Sunday's expedition. I'm just glad that the Bird of the Day was so insistent: this chickadee kept going and going till I finally stopped to record his "Hey Sweetie".

My version:

Later, a runner-up bird, heard but not seen, pointed out to me by Rocco's human. Rocco is a cute, curly grey dog who I regularly run into at the Arboretum. I don't know his friendly human's name yet! but we sometimes talk a little bird.

At home, sketches around chickadees, and some polishing of my versions of tufted titmouse and cardinal. To be posted later this week!

Winter Update #14: Redemption

Feb 20 and 21, Arnold Arboretum, JP and Blue Hills Reservation, Canton, MA
cold, clear and windy on Sunday; snowing (??!) today

Lest we forget, Mother Nature was kind enough to remind us with snow this morning: officially one month left of Winter. For Boston, it's more like two.

Yes, let's not get carried away by the thaw last week that brought out bikes, melted snow piles, and put a little spring (!) into our steps. It's still winter, folks!

Today's bird is a half-hearted jay. It's just too dismal out to screech much:

Luckily, yesterday I snuck in a thaw-inspired adventure. It was pretty frigid and windy out, but also enticingly clear and blue-skied.

After a short walk in the Arboretum, finally confirming the winter screech is a jay (hear the mix of both here):

and hearing some jay medleys (listen to how he transitions from short call to long call):

..I felt the impulse to spend many hours outdoors. After some deliberation, I decided it was time to redeem the failed sunrise hike and Find That Hill at Blue Hills Reservation, the one with the amazing view.

Seven bike-miles and 1.5 icy snowy hike-miles, later, I was stretched out on a veritable mountain top (well, 496 feet qualifies as Mountain in Greater Boston!), ducking a ferocious wind and digging a gorgeous, sunny, blue sky.

Definitely would be a great sunrise spot.

Not many birds to report - I heard one nuthatch and a couple crows on the whole trip! - but it was soothing to be outdoors, trekking, doing my California hiking thing in the Bostonian winter. We can and will survive!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Winter Update #13: Post-Rain Glory

6:30-7am, Bussey Hill, Arnold Arboretum
windy, cold, few low clouds

It was a gorgeous, red-gold dawn etching out heavy leftover storm clouds.

Today I finally recorded the unpredictable rhythm of trudging through snow as I ascended Bussey Hill:

I love it when the Bird of the Day self-nominates: this titmouse called out from a few yards away as I approached the crest of the Hill:

At home I sketched a piece based on what seems like the classic four-part bird "harmony" or texture for this time of year: titmouse, jay, cardinal, chickadee.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Winter Update #12: Wet Sneakers

6:15am-7:30am, Franklin Park, JP/Dorchester, MA
kinda warm! but still chilly in the early am!

It was a crazy spring thaw in Boston today, and the day started noticeably warmer than usual.

My dear friends Jonas and Michal joined me for the sunrise, which was super-fun, though I worried about the obscuring cloud cover. I guess I cannot promise anyone a perfect sunrise, much as I may want to!

We tramped through A LOT of mushy snow, with lots of unexpected drops to the knee. Funny, but also tiring and foot-soaking.

Not so many birds out in Franklin Park. Some smatterings of geese (!), jays, an occasional nuthatch. Sirens and traffic predominant in the landscape; bird of the day nominally a jay:

For me the most interesting sound was the arrhythmic sound of our struggle to walk through sometimes hard, sometimes surprisingly soft snow.

At home, I further stoked my desire to write a piece based on this snow-walk/sinking groove, but proceeded to actually write an entirely different piece altogether

Here, a rough sketch:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Winter Update #11:The Bird Next Door

6:30am-7:40am Peters' Hill and my block (by Forest Hills T station), Jamaica Plain
not so cold! streaky wispy clouds, colorful sunrise

It is hard to stick to one bird a day. There are so many to listen to, even in the dead of winter, and I have a hard time deciding when to turn off the recorder for the morning.

For example, today I encountered several candidates for Bird of the Day, including:
-my first binocular sighting of the wee-er bird (brown, sparrow-like) in mid-call
-another intergalactic-sounding bird, more songful than yesterday's trill

-the funky winter screech that I'm pretty sure is a blue jay, but haven't yet confirmed

But in the end, the winner is The Bird Next Door, who rang out as I was just a few steps from home. I really hope my neighbors don't think I was spying on them; the bird was perched on a bush right in front of their living room window, and I shamelessly aimed my binoculars, at it (them) for a good lengthy observation.

Here's his song:

Now I hope someone can help me ID him! He reminded me of an heirloom eggplant: creamy, with dotted streaks of purple-y red across his face and wings. So distinctive, I felt sure I'd find him instantly in my field guide, which sadly is not the case.

I only got a front-on view, so am not sure what his body/back were like.
The dotted streaks looked similar to Black-and-White Warbler, though of course crimson purple instead of black. Could it be a Song Sparrow with unusual coloring??

At home I started sketching some ideas based on the time and space in between calls, as opposed to the calls themselves. The "interstitial spaces", to borrow the term from an artist friend. What determines how much silence a bird leaves between phrases? What is the significance of that time? Is he listening, waiting, "counting" or feeling out a certain temporal distance before he goes again?

To be explored!

**Update 2/19: BOTD identified as a song sparrow. Thanks, Marc! **

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Winter Update #10: Everybody goes "huh?"

6:35-7:45am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum
cold and clear, vivid sunrise

This morning it seemed like everyone on the hill was saying "hhhuh?"

The robin-filled tree was saying it, a whole chorus of "hhhuh?"s and "what the...?s" emerging out of the usual cheep-y texture:

The tiny "wee-er", white-breasted birds whose name I still don't know were saying it, as usual (along with that great intergalactic trill):

My rough version:

I myself felt a bit confused and "huh??" myself, as I tried to ID the tiny birds. Today I was determined to get a good sighting, but my noisy new snowshoes gave me away.

I was lucky to be lent these shoes, the modern metal kind, but had no idea how loud they would be! Not a good solution for ambulatory winter birding. I wonder if traditional leather/natural-fiber snowshoes are more quiet?

Today's sketch was a composition based on the "huhh?" sonic gesture.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter Update #9: Back in the Swing

Feb 12-15, Franklin Park and Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain
some cold, some thawing, some wind

Getting back into the swing of sunrises, and I'm loving it!

Saturday was a special treat at Franklin Park, which I have not visited in many weeks -since 2010! It's really fun to meander all over the snow-buried golf course, though I wish I had brought snowshoes. It was still frigid on Saturday, and not too many birds out, though I enjoyed watching a blue jay switch calls (from loud screech to melodious "gate creaking") in mid-flight.

On Sunday I figured out the source of the "exotic" call that I've been hearing - a cardinal! I like how he starts slow and speeds up.

Yesterday was a strangely warm, thaw-of-a-day, and there was quite a dawn chorus of monotone calls, with crows, cardinal, nuthatches, all in on the action. It also included, fortunately or unfortunately, some human and canine input:

I also got a beautiful, breath-catching view of a red-tailed hawk which flew right over me, its white belly rosy from the first rays of dawn.

Today was a brilliantly clear, and I finally got some good photos of the dawn-lit snow (to be posted). There was a thick, constant wind that, while cold, felt marine and almost summery in its density. Sadly, my attempts at recording the Robin Highway (25 meter flight path between two popular trees) was foiled by the wind noise.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Winter Update #8: Mystery Bird

Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, 6:45am-7:30am
very clear, very cold

Help! Who is this mysterious bird?

His high warbling sound entranced me. I excerpted a little chunk to learn.
His version:

My version:

Just before that, I enjoyed this echo effect performance of three different tufted titmice on the hill:

And in between, a really gorgeous red sunrise. What does it mean? I'm thinking of the saying "Red skies at night, a sailor's delight/ Red skies in the morning, sailors take warning"?

A quick Google search reveals, courtesy of the Library of Congress, there is some truth to this saying, and has to do with light interacting with clouds, moisture or dust particles that might indicate either an approaching or departing storm system.

Also, I think a glowing red horizon (what I saw today) is not the same as a fully red sky. Still, the horizon is not so red every morning, and I enjoyed it!

**Update 2/19: the Mystery Bird has been identified as a house finch. Thank you Marc!!**

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Winter Update #7: Ventriloquism

Feb 9, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
clear and very cold

Today's bird was a ventriloquist nuthatch! I spent about 10 minutes turning this way, then that way, and I swear, no matter which direction I turned it sounded like the bird was behind me.

Was it some wierd acoustical property of frozen-over snow that caused the sound to bounce so confusingly? The thing is, the other bird sounds were clearly directional. This is the most confused I've ever been while following my ears, and the silliest I've ever felt, traversing back and forth across a 10 meter square area in utter confusion.

Here you can hear my elusive prey, and my crunchy footsteps. Luckily the snow has developed a bit of crust, so I mostly was not sinking to my knees as on previous mornings - though the occasional unexpected drop did occur.

Today's sketch is a groove based on the occasional footstep breaking through snow.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Winter Update #6: When It Rains, It Pours

Feb 1-7, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
mix of more snow, freezing rain, and a slight thaw

Much to report - it's been a full week of birds, composing, and animal sightings.

First of all, Happy Lunar New Year!
Last Thursday marked the start of the Year of the Rabbit for us Chinese folks, and my New Year's Eve was marked by a sighting, under freezing hail, of a grey bunny rabbit mosey-ing across a snowbank outside the train station. In 5 years in Boston, I've never seen a rabbit outdoors, wild, feral or otherwise. An unusual (and surely good) omen!

On Saturday, my morning amble was most notable for encountering a skunk scampering up the icy path in the Arboretum, then slinking under the gate to the Rose Garden. Queries with the dogwalkers who came up the path confirmed that nobody had lost a pet skunk, and that I am not starting to have strange animal hallucinations. Most strange!

Yesterday's bird of the day was a giant Canadian Goose who sat silently, all alone, on a bank of snow by the softball field at Jamaica Pond. I could see its tracks leading from the icy sidewalk to this seemingly random "roost" just a few yards from the bustling Jamaicaway. No other geese as far as the eye could see. Was it injured? I couldn't tell, and it didn't respond to my questioning.

Today I was excited about two things: catching a gorgeous pre-dawn show (alternating streaks of grey-blue clouds over brilliant pink backdrop) and testing out my new binoculars! Yes, it took a few months, but I am finally equipped to call myself a birder.

Today's bird is a tufted titmouse whose repetitive calls have been filling the winter soundscape at the Arboretum.

Perhaps Mr. Titmouse has been sub-consciously influencing my music: my composition on Friday evolved from a single repeated pitch, though I was not consciously imitating him.

Here is a rough cut of Friday's composition (please forgive electric keyboard sound!):

Winter Update #5: Firsts and Duos

Jan 30-31, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA

(Jan 31) This morning I had the eery sensation that spring had arrived three months, several degrees and a serious thaw early. While meandering through the Arboretum, I came across a corner that was filled with singing birds, much more melodious than the usual chirps I've been hearing.

One was my first singing cardinal of the project (so far the others have only chirped!). Very exciting, and lovely. Unfortunately today was a recorder-free day, so I will have to document him another time.

Yesterday was also a very fruitful morning of sound-gathering, this time with recorder.

I was charmed by this "duet" between two chickadees on opposite sides of the path:

Here is the trail-off so you know can hear how independent they actually are.

Also got up-close and personal with some chickadees who showed me a different side to their usual call: