A creative exploration of dawns, birds, and music.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Spring 12: Gesture of the Day
6:30am-7:30am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
ripply overcast, cool
The best moment of sunrise was just before dawn today. The rippled blanket of cloud suddenly was burning pink, its ridges lit extra deep. Gorgeous!
This was the "phrase du jour" on the hill - every robin seemed to toy with it, creating cool echo and stereo effects:
Here it is in whistled form, just to confirm what it is:
I'm very curious what the deal is with these robins. Are they young birds slowly building their repertoire? Old hands getting warmed up and back in the swing of things?
Furthermore, there was that Arboretum factoid about how winter robins were not "ours", but neighbors migrating from further North (while our robins had gone south). How can I tell when ours have come back? Seems like if it's warm enough to change tacks and start singing, these may be our original robins returned?
A bonus nod to this little bird, I think a goldfinch, whose call was so striking to me. The second and third calls on this clip have the exact melodic and rhythmic countour as a phrase with which my sister sometimes comforts my baby nephew ("Eh, googoo!"). It was sweet to hear in bird-speak!
6:40am-7:40am, Bussey Hill side of Arnold Arboretum (north of Bussey St), Jamaica Plain, MA
cold, light wind, light frost
It's rehearsal period for robins, and I hear signs of improvement!
Today's Robin, over by the Rose Garden, was decidedly more melodic than the ones I've been hearing the last couple weeks.
Other signs of progress:
-- Two wavery White-Throated Sparrows singing
-- Gorgeous waxy red buds on a Silver Magnolia
-- Bright, whimsical and plentiful down-facing yellow flowers of the Chinese Witch Hazel tree, whose petals look like miniscule strips of confetti or party crepe streamers
I need to hang out "Northside" more often - I'm usually down at Peters Hill on the southside for the clear view of the sunrise.
At home, I worked on my version of the robin song. To be posted!
6:25am-7:25am, Bussey and Peters Hills, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
cold and very clear
Well, the ground feels crunchy-frozen. But even the brambles are starting to bud and I think I heard a house finch today. So overall, spring is winning!
Here is a bramble excerpt (robin foreground, finch? and mourning dove background, cameo by raggedy car):
This little corner on Bussey Hill always distracts me when I'm hurrying over to Peters Hill, trying to beat the sunrise to the top. I've read directions online to building your own bramble pile of old branches to attract birds, so I guess there's an appeal to the woven, protective nature of this kind of environment. Anyway, there's lots of talkative birds hanging out here.
Today's bird was at the very top of Peters Hill. He was unfamiliar-looking - white-chested with some markings, slender beak, robin-sized or a little bigger. Greyish on top, I think, but hard to tell as he was way overhead. But he was The Real Yeti - wow! (That, or I have to start acknowledging the Yeti-sound is a whole genre of birdcall with many distinct practitioners)
*Update 4/4: the Yeti has been identified as a Northern Flicker. Thanks, Rich!*
9:00am-9:25am, Bussey Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
cold, mostly clear
I'm not sure which bird* made the constant deedeedeedeedeedeedee in the background here, but I liked it:
The steady pulsing quality made me think of the animal song research my friend Marie was telling me about. Some scientists have studied how, when you relate an animal's call to its pulse rate, and slow it down or speed it up to the same speed as a human heartbeat, clear melodies emerge from previously amorphous sounds. This was specifically true of certain birds and whales.
At home, I played around with the idea of overlapping many versions of this bird pulse at different rates, with the slower ones sounding lower in pitch, and pulling a melody out of this:
*Update 4/4: Pulsing bird identified as a Dark-Eyed Junco. Thanks, Rich!*
6:45am-7:30am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
very cold, very clear, breezy
Bird of the Day is a blue jay. I marvel at the contrasting timbres this bird can get - you would never imagine the same bird that makes a raucous jay-screech makes this gentle multi-tonal melodic call:
Winter is challenging Spring this week, as evidenced by the snow, the cold. The Marsh is re-freezing, and the robin-songs are far fewer (reverting back to robin-scolding-cheeps).
However, you cannot de-bud the trees, Old Winter! Nor can you send the red-winged Blackbirds or the song sparrows back south. It's a slow, protracted battle but the winner is assured... eventually...
6:40am-7:15am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
swath of rain-clouds over eastern horizon
There was a half-moon in the sky, and curious, fertilizer-like frozen grains of snow all over the ground this morning.
The sun did the awesome "celestial rays" thing, distinct beams surging out of a bank of clouds. The belated sunrise was extra-exciting as the rays were angled upwards instead of the usual down (or the also-uncommon straight-horizontal).
I haven't come to Peters Hill in a while, partially because I find the red-winged blackbirds to be somewhat overwhelming. Very cool sounds, but so loud!
However, there are other birds talking on the hill. In addition to the goldfinches, robins, crows and jays, Today's Bird (sparrow of some kind?) made a fine, twittery stand in contrast to the blackbirds' trills.
6:45am-7:00am, Bussey Brook Meadow, Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
I caught a nice visual moment on the Meadow path today: scatterings of tiny, delicate lines of snow cross-hatching the dirt.
The snow hadn't been falling for very long, and I suppose the ground was warm enough to melt and disperse much of it. What remained was the fragile dust of snow lining the surfaces of miniscule twigs and pebbles, raised just above the dirt-level of the path. They were wondrously varied.
We (I'll speak for all of the Northeast now!) are wintered-out, and would prefer that spring asserted itself at this point. However, it is fun to see that, three months into my fifth New England winter, there are still completely new snow-scenes to witness!
Meanwhile, it's business as usual for the Meadow birds: cardinals, song sparrows, robins, blackbirds.
I get a kick out of the Blackbird Phenomenon, which has happened a couple times now: I hear a couple of notes sticking out of a general bird texture, and think it's a new bird. Eventually I realize it's a blackbird who follows these pitches with buzzing, but the buzzing gets swallowed into the background while the melodic notes stick out. I love auricular illusions!
Here's my version first, so you can hear the notes I'm talking about:
Now, the Meadow/marsh soundscape with the original Blackbird of the Day:
Here, a more sparse moment where you can hear the buzzy-screechy trill that follows each of the melodic bits (and is the completion of the call):
and amazing bird-woman, Nicole Perretta, who can do 146 bird calls mostly with her voice (not whistling, unlike most humans who mimic birds). Full feature here. She started when she was 6. Do I still have a chance?
Clearly, the earlier you start to learn any language, human or avian, the easier it will come. However, I am inspired to get to work on bird sounds away from the violin, starting with a whistle.
The only problem is deciding which type of whistle to work on (through the teeth, no hands; into cupped hands; or with two fingers, like our English friend). The Youtube instruction on this is pretty hilarious!
If anyone personally knows humans who can mimic birds (vocally or whistling) please contact me via the contact page. I'm still trying to recruit my human birdcall chorus, as well as to build a network of instructors!
7:20am-8:00am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
crisp, shifting clouds
Both the sun and I took our time getting up this morning (sun: clouds; me: sleep).
The day had a fresh, post-rain feeling to it. I should say, "post-snow" but I am a little bit in denial. Yup, we got fresh snow on the second official day of spring. I can't keep switching seasons like this!
I've seen beautiful golden sunlight streaming through trees in the Arboretum before, I know I have. But something about the elusive nature of this morning's light, which would emerge from behind clouds for a few glorious moments, then dim again, made it feel like the first time.
Also, I think I'm usually out earlier, so I don't get the same angle of light as I was seeing today.
More song sparrows today - they really are remarkable singers - and so inventive! I thought for sure I was hearing a new species today when I tracked my bird of the day down:
6:50-7:15am, Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
chilly, misty overcast
I was all prepared to explain in detail why today's post would be called "Spring 1", as the official first day of spring. My rationale for going with an astronomical calendar, the equinox, instead of an environmentally-observed event (the first singing robin, the appearance of blackbirds) was that since spring seems to evolve gradually over a few weeks, a solar-determined date is as good as any.
However, the Internet Sages just informed me that yesterday was actually the first official day of spring. Oops! Well, my timing was a bit off, but my rationale remains. In fact, it feels better, since yesterday's adventure was a worthy marker of the Official Start of Spring: conquering the Buck Hill sunrise on a gorgeous, sunny day.
So yesterday's post has been edited (post-- dated), and we are now comfortably moving on to the second day of spring: a hazy, overcast morning full of song sparrows. The marsh in the meadows is now fully defrosted and wet, complete with ducks and geese.
It was even better than anticipated, with a full moon to gawk at along the way (the biggest and brightest in 18 years, according to my friend). Not a bad way to mark the spring equinox!
My amazing and intrepid buddies Barbara and Greg got up at an indecent hour and picked me up so that I didn't have to make an 8-mile bike trek at 4 am. Thank goodness for good friends (and their cars)!!
It was an exciting hike in the dark woods --the moon was too low on the horizon to guide us-- and Barb's excellent trail-finding skills, as well as three handy lights, made the quest possible. We did lose the trail a couple times, though, and I felt my blood pressure rise every time. I couldn't afford another Blue Hills catastrophe! Well, at least I'd be apologizing to two new victims...
I can't believe we tried to follow this trail with one headlamp back in October...
The summit was beautiful, though windy and rather cold. It was great to watch a setting moon grow pink in the west as the horizon began to glow on the east. The sun popped up so quickly we almost missed its appearance. Somehow they didn't co-habitate- that is, as the sun rose we turned around and discovered the moon had set - leading me to speculate that the sun and moon are actually the same person!
Not so many birds on the hike itself, but once we got down to the trail-head, there were many gathering across the main road at the Northern leg of the Skyline Trail. We crossed over, mostly in excitement this fantastic drumming by the bird of the day:
To all those who say, "it's not the instrument that matters, it's how you play it", I say, "except when you pick a bad-ass drum!" Must be a gigantic hollow tree, I loved the resonance and sheer volume of it.
Here he is when the crows arrive:
Chickadees and juncos were also hanging out at this spot. And this bird, whose high call caught my attention. He looked like maybe a starling from way down below (and backlit)?
6:45-7:15am, Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
rain-cloudy, a few sprinkles
Finally, it's time to feature Mr. Robin, who has been transitioning from cheeps and calls to songs this week. I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear someone speak of snow flurries expected next week, since clearly Robin didn't get that message either! Let's keep looking forward...
He seems to be warming up, not quite at spring glory yet, but still lovely to listen to.
I thought the buzzy interjections in this were fun:
I also liked the stratospherically-high melodic interjections here -- yup, it's all from the same bird!
6:50-7:40am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
breezy, changing cloudscape
Pre-sunrise was an ooh-fest with some spectacular cloud colors. The clouds then re-arranged the skyscape every few minutes; Mother Nature is so creative!
The dawn chorus is heating up, slowly but surely. I must report that the robins have begun to sing in the last few days; however, my bird today is the Red-Bellied Woodpecker.
I've been very curious to figure out who makes this memorable call, and am excited to finally spot the fellow! It also might be the first time I have identified without doubt a bird with my field guide: his red head and black-and-white speckled coat were distinctive.
It's funny, how relieved I was upon seeing this woodpecker as the caller. I had this fear of being wrong - a worry that this really interesting call might "just" be a bird I already knew, like a blue jay. Silly to be afraid of making an incorrect guess, isn't it? I'd like to be more fearless in my quests/guesses - that seems a healthier way to learn.
Here are a couple bonus clips of the dawn chorus. Wows, it's getting busy, mostly familiar characters, but everyone at their singing best: singing robins, house finch, woodpeckers drumming, and all kinds of blackbird variations.
Even the jays are sticking to more melodic contributions:
6:50am-7:40am, Bussey Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
cool, very clear, frosty
...It feels like spring today. Should I have called it Spring 1?
Amazing how good a clear sunny sky feels after yesterday's punishing wetness. Hurray for the little contrasts that make life more beautiful!
An earnest robin competed for the title today, but in the end I award a song sparrow that I spent a long time with, whose endless variety dazzled me. He's a vigorous singer, and I love how whole-bodied his singing is, head rocking back-and-forth, tail bouncing up-and-down to execute these songs. He changed patterns every couple minutes:
On the way home, a mythical mist-ical scene (see background), some conjunction of evaporating frost, fog, and light turned an ordinary grove into a magical place.
My sketch at home was about creating the sonic equivalent of an enchanted, mist-strewn space.
6pm-6:45pm, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
cool, breezy, mix of clouds
Today was a funny, extended day that ran almost 20 hours from dawn till dusk:
A rainy, blurred dawn glimpsed from a train in Catalunya.
A long day suspended in the sunny sky. Two lunches. Three airports.
A return to not-terribly-cold Boston in time to catch sunset in the Arboretum (thank you, Time Change!). I am surprised to find patches of snow on the ground still: my respite in Spain put me in spring mode.
However, the magnolia trees are budding, willowy pillowy-soft buds. Spring is imminent!
I was worried that I might have missed major changes over the last week, and was relieved that the dusk "chorus" was mostly familiar: robins and red-winged blackbirds. I also heard the first white-throated sparrow in months, in a bamboo oasis by the Rose Garden.
Today's Bird was new to me, over in the marshes by the Visitor Center:
6:35am-8:00am, vineyards/playground/Sant Pau Hill, Vilafranca del Penedes, Catalunya, Spain
windy, misty, mix of clouds
The sky was enormous, and suspended in an exceptional, potent shade of blue when I entered the vineyards this morning.
I love the constant transition of dawn, the colors evolving from moment to moment. The remarkable blue lasted just a few minutes before lightening into a more dusty, cloud-strewn hue.
The post-rain freshness and tangible quick breeze were enlivening, and again it was a festival of birds-new-to-me.
There was a playground near the hilltop, which I dubbed "The Playground on Top of the World". OK, so it's probably only a couple hundred meters high, but a swing set and slide overlooking a vineyard-checkered valley give one a sense of majesty and invincibility.
At the playground, these two birds seemed to be variations of the same species, but listening at home I felt less sure:
Playground Bird 1
Playground Bird 2
It was exciting to actually spot a few birds today. This super-sonic high twittering comes from a very small, yellow bird with sparrow-like markings**:
Then I approached the pines of Sant Pau hill and found Today's Bird : a singer with an astounding array of songs. He reminded me of the maybe-mockingbird from yesterday, but his calls were spaced further apart:
The question of the day was, while squinting skyward in dim overcast light, "Is that a bird or a pine cone?" The answer was, invariably, "Pine cone".
However, at one lucky moment my bird changed trees, and I got a glimpse of a rosy-chested, slightly larger-than-sparrow fellow.
Here, an audio close-up:
**Little yellow bird has been identified as a "European Serin". Thanks, Jim!!**
March 11 8am-8:45am, vineyards outside Vilafranca del Penedes, Catalunya, Spain
crisp, varying overcast and building clouds
I'll admit, I had the thought almost before hearing my first bird this morning: will the bird-sounds here relate linguistically to Catalan (the native language)? Is there some kind of discernible connection between the birds and the culture here?
On sight, I was entranced by the large, long-tailed, strikingly black and white magpies, the bosses of the vineyard. They seemed like a stylish European take on our common crow, just as the eyeglass fashion in Spain is more colorful and bold than American spectacles.
Unfortunately, the internet later revealed that magpies are also common birds in the (western) U.S. So much for my theory!
Still, it was fun to follow the cross-cultural train of thought. It seemed to me that their little sparrow birds were more distinctively-striped, the flight patterns more contoured, the "Yeti" call here more flamboyant, etc.
My Bird of the Day (heard but not seen):
His calls were very spread out, as you can hear here (if you have patience to wait for the second call!):
There were several other interesting birds I heard today, but I am trying to stick to my one bird rule. However, I can't resist one more recording!
These birds sound like the Catalan cousins of my familiar Arboretum birds in Boston: the Iberian version of the American Goldfinch's "huh?", plus an appearance of the Catalan Yeti (sounding like Boston's Cardinal or Nuthatch):
At home, I started sketching a piece based on the different melodic shapes of "Good morning" versus "Bom dia".
March 10 sunset, 6-7pm, vineyards outside Vilafranca del Penedes, Catalunya, Spain
comfortable, mostly clear
I saw a magnificent dawn this morning (pink rays bouncing off snow-covered Pyrenees Mountains), but it was from inside a sealed airplane and a bit high for birds.
This evening, sunset in the vineyards. It's gorgeous here, and was quieting down by the time I got out.
However, I did find one hot spot for roosting birds, who were gathering in some tall pines in the local cemetery. It wasn't quite a public strolling grounds, so I recorded from a dirt lot outside the cemetery wall (and hoped the passing soccer families didn't find me too odd). These birds sounded starling-esque to me:
6:10am-7am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum
cool, mostly clear
It's my first morning back in Boston since Sunday's thaw and I find the change from snowy/icy to exposed raggedy brown bewildering.
I see the dirt, leaves, and occasional tennis ball that's been buried for two months. It's kind of ugly, to be honest! A sort of awkward adolescent transition between the glamorous bright white of winter and the green mayhem of spring.
Today's bird is a beautiful red-winged blackbird, glossy black with red splotches (lined with yellow) on its shoulders:
There were dozens of them at the hill this morning, and they were so loud with their melodious trills and squeaks that I at first mistook them to be starlings. A flock of them made quite the Hitchcock-ian scene, large and numerously perched in a tall tree, raising a ruckus, while small detachments went wheeling around the sky.
March 7 6:15-6:45am, South Orange, New Jersey
This morning I multi-tasked: listening for my bird while wheeling my luggage and self down to the train station.
It wasn't much of an expedition, but I did catch a chickadee along the way, doing that hey sweetie call.
Unfortunately, I was too slow to the draw with the recorder; here is the residue of what was going on behind the chickadee:
Keeping the recorder on the ready was no use at the train station, despite a couple of trees that seemed promising; the most prominent non-human sound was that of a plastic bag rustling in the wind. This is actually a recurring theme in the last few days (Philly, New York, and now New Jersey)!
I had the chance to appreciate something I had also noticed on my early AM trip out of Boston. Actually there are lots of other people up, out and about at dawn, but most of them are glumly getting themselves to work in some kind of noisy, busy, urban gritty environment. I'm lucky lucky to be spending most of my dawns with nature!
March 6 6:10am-6:45am, City College and environs, Harlem, NY
drizzly grey, windy, cool
Ah, the Sunday calm. Fun to take in the Harlem's alter-ego on this drizzly early Sunday morning.
A couple of "only on a Sunday" moments:
- Two cardinals calling across a small side street at one another, rather low-pitched, their voices resounding off the pavement and smooth buildings. No traffic to compete with!
- A seagull diving low across Amsterdam Ave, below the traffic lights, well within bus-crashing range had there been any out
- A hawk perched imperiously on a tree branch in St. Nicholas park. Ok, this is not particularly Sunday moment, but I always get a kick out of seeing hawks in very urban areas.
March 5 6:20am-7:20am, Bella Vista neighborhood, Philadelphia, PA
overcast murk morphing into gorgeous moving clouds
One way streets are the norm here, and they are very convenient for open-mouthed gaping at birds from the middle of the road: if you face traffic, you have plenty of advance notice when a car is coming.
My initial disappointment at having forced myself out of bed for a grey sky is allayed when the clouds clear and there is an incredible, humongous golden-white sunrise.
Why does the sun seem bigger here? It's probably something to do with how the clouds blur its edges, but the sun just seems to have no end, and stretches its brilliant, blinding light over a vast piece of sky, rippled gold clouds in its wake.
Lots of birds this morning, and I enjoy the reduced car-load of Saturday morning. I hear cardinals, and a mourning dove in addition to the plentiful city sparrows and starlings. '
The parking lot of a Rite-Aid turns out to be quite a draw, and I get my bird of the day here. He's a feisty, trill-y one, and takes off play/fighting with another bird. I kept the postlude because I like the other birds at the end of this clip:
March 4 6:35am -7:15am, Bella Vista neighborhood, Philadelphia, PA
cool, wispy clouds
I saw a gorgeous chunk of sunrise this morning between buildings, a generous, huge gold swath.
My bird of the day was right on the corner of the house where I'm staying (perhaps a house finch?). Lovely song!
After checking out the river (too noisy from the highway), I headed back and got to see a fantastic cloud-scape: tiny, linked, silky puffs that reminded me of those tiny shirts (only a few inches across) that can stretch to adult size.
March 3 Bella Vista neighborhood, Philadelphia, PA
I'm in Philly to rehearse and play a chamber music concert at Ben Franklin (and George Washington)'s church! Pretty cool!
It was a late night, so I'm up late. The folks here are friendlier than in Boston, it seems, but still the urban birder is a suspicious character.
As I attempt to record some birds on a busy residential road, including today's bird:
the carpet-store employees eye me curiously, and I surprise one resident when he emerges from his apartment to find standing right next to his front door.
A few seconds later, he comes back to suggest a honeysuckle bush around the corner. Nice folks in this town!
Not so much luck there, but I meander back through the alleyways that are so charming to Philadelphia, and discover a pretty, mosaic-tiled backway with these fun birds:
March 2 Copley Square, Boston
En route to Philly, I catch dawn at Copley Square, with a scenic fresco at the Public Library: arcs of pigeons perched on the curved balustrades above the front entrance, while straight lines of starlings run the length of the building above them.
It's too windy and traffic-y to record any sounds, but I do capture a nice mental image of a pigeon being chased by four tiny birds. The scene ends up being an illusion - the pigeon goes one way and the tiny birds go on theirs - and I enjoy being faked out.
March 1, 2011
6:20am-7:00am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
very windy, mostly clear, low bank of clouds on the horizon
It's clear this morning and it's March, which make me feel hopeful.
There is a lot to feel hopeful about, and I am savoring this sensation after a powerful evening of transformative art at Theatre of War last night. (For Bostonians: One more performance/round-table at the A.R.T. next Monday, 3/7, do not miss it)
I realized that when I'm inspired, it's easy to get up, even after little sleep. Three cheers for hope and inspiration!
I resolve to be more patient, and kind, and to not be annoyed that there are no new birds or songs today, because, hey (!), I've never heard this call before:
...though I suspect it's a familiar bird in an unfamiliar guise.
Feb 28, 2011
6:55-7:30am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
Lots to note today:
1) A certain depth/wetness of snow makes for a very satisfying, slightly sticky crunch (wacky jay behind it!)
2) The relative quiet of wet weather can instantly transform into busy bird conversations when the rain/snow lets up. I call the repeated high trill my Bird of the Day (or metronome!)
3) Everyone struggles: I watched a fat fat mockingbird (?) struggling to keep its balance on a thin thin bush branch while it reached for a berry. Cute!
4) Learning is a slow process, as evidenced in today's repeat lesson: Never turn off the recorder till you get home, or you might miss the most unusual birdcall of the morning. It might have been a novice or experimental blue jay, but I'd never heard anything like it.
Here is my version, for lack of a field documentation: