A creative exploration of dawns, birds, and music.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Spring 66: Blue Skies
7:30am-7:50am, Bussey Brook Meadow, Jamaica Plain, MA
breezy, clear skies
I am a slave to the weather.
All it takes is a sunny day to fill me with jubilation and enthusiasm. I don't even know for what - I'm just happy to be alive in this beautiful world!
I would have loved a long meander this morning, but it was a busy work day, so I made do with a mini-excursion. Nonetheless, the feeling of being tickled with all that I encountered stayed with me all day, as did the feeling that I couldn't take anything too seriously - I'm in summer mode now.
It's the season of the outdoors, the fresh, the foot-loose. My season!
Here is today's bird, the song sparrow, against a chorus of robins:
Tuesday, May 25, 2011 7:50am-8:30am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
warm breeze, hazy
Funny that I should hear the "robin with a sore throat" (the Scarlet Tanager) on a morning that I have a bit of a sore throat - which leads me to ponder once again my composition idea, "I am a Robin". Perhaps the piece needs a sequel...
I'd like to invent a new term - "tanagered" - to describe the feeling of extreme neck-fatigue and deep bewilderment at searching the high canopy (with leaves fluttering in the breeze) for a high-up, back-lit, smallish bird who at this distance looks exactly like a fluttering (or not-fluttering) leaf.
His singing is so distinctive and clear that one feels sure that he will be easy to spot. So the frustration is even more intense!
However, I am glad to report that I survived the tanagering, and did manage two sightings of this incredibly-hued bird. They aren't joking about the scarlet - it really is an intense and brilliant color!
(I'm not trying to sneak in an extra bird, but I also like the Eastern Wood Pee-Wee who is making his little questioning calls in the background!)
Monday, May 23, 2011 7:50am-8:20am, Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
I am so tired of the rain!
Today I learned a good reason not to be hard-core about the mornings, especially with this inclement weather.
My wet morning outing turned up little more than 1) a beautiful oak; 2) a robin; and 3) a grumpy mood.
At midday, when the rain had stopped, I went for a little run in the Arboretum and was surprised by how many more birds were singing at noon in dry weather than in the morning under rain. I was surrounded by lovely sounds - and I was recorder-less!
Lesson learned - as atmospheric as my rain-filled field recordings are, I am going to hear more birds when it's dry out, even if it's later in the day. Better for me and the project in the long run!
Thanks to today's rainy robin for being a persistent singer, and helping me refine my strategy:
Sunday, May 22, 2011 8am, parking lot, University of Massachusetts Laboratories, Jamaica Plain, MA
I'm busy getting ready for this afternoon's house concert, so my outing is a quick one. Just up the block to the parking lot, to catch an old friend of mine - a Northern Mockingbird who I suspect is the same bird who I recorded last October.
Listen for the funny cameo by (duet with?) some kind of emergency vehicle:
Saturday, May 21, 2011 8:30am-11:00am, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA
cloudy to clear, warm, beautiful
After months of winter anticipation, I finally made it to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge - a legendary birding "hotspot" in the Boston area.
Almost every birder I've ever talked to has encouraged me to go to Mt. Auburn for the spring migration, but my obsession with sunrise has made this destination daunting (it's about a one hour bike ride from where I live.. 5:00AM minus one hour begins to look ridiculous!)
Good thing I never attempted a sunrise here, as I learned that the place doesn't even open until 7 or 8am!
I finally got here today thanks to a birdwalk being led by Broad Meadow Audubon Sanctuary birder Alex Dunn. He had a large group of birders, but was gracious enough to let me tag along.
And what an amazing place! Truly lived up to its reputation, with all kinds of lovely nooks and crannies; ponds and dells; owl-inhabited trees and lookout towers; from which to observe and enjoy plant and animal life.
Bunnies. Folks with binoculars. Incredible trees and foliage. And a ton of birds!
Some highlights include:
- The first glimpses of sun and blue sky in over a week!
- My first Great Horned Owls ! One on a branch and one snuggled in a nest.
- An awesome catbird, who completely fooled me with this catchy call (I was sure I'd discovered an exciting new bird!):
- A new thrush, the Wood Thrush, is my bird of the day. He has as gorgeous and haunting a song as his relative the Hermit Thrush, though in a lower register and with extra trills and ornaments at the end of each phrase. Incredible!
5:30am-6:40am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
I finally made it out at more-or-less sunrise-time, after two weeks of late mornings and dreary weather. Not that I've missed much - I think there may have been one visible sunrise in the last two weeks. (Today's was not.)
Still, it's good to be out at the early hour, and to see that the birdsongs are not hugely different than what I've been hearing. I was worried I was missing all the acoustic glories of dawn!
I wonder how much the rainy dreary weather has affected migrating birds: who sings, and who stays.
Today's bird was a new one to me, in a tree up on Peters Hill. I liked his sing-song-y little call:
I was still in Calvino mode this morning. There was a moment when my ears were filled with birdsongs I'd never heard before, and I was transported in Calvino's fable of the mysterious continent full of birds-that-might-have-been.
I realized then that I don't need to invent any birds - the real ones here on Earth are varied, unpredictable, and unknown enough (at least to me) to occupy and fascinate me for quite some time.
That moment of clarity was Calvino-eque, too - it disappeared as soon as it had begun, and I couldn't find those mysterious birds again.
8:45am-9:30am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
The grasses are be-jeweled with fresh rain droplets, as are all the branches.
For the moment, the rain has ceased, but its presence is everywhere in this wet world.
I get a bit wetter, clambering through some tall grass, to record a couple of groovy fellows, same as I heard last week. I've never seen these birds, only heard them, but thanks to Alex's tip on the Daily Bird I've identified them as Black-throated Green Warblers.
I've been ruminating about the idea of imaginary birds and what they might sound like. It's something I've pondered before- on my mind again because of a lovely short story by Italo Calvino.
In "The Origin of Birds", Calvino plays with the idea that birds represent an alternate world: the realm of evolutionary possibilities, "all the forms the world could have taken in its transformations but hadn't". This is also the world of the monsters, "the rejected forms, unusable, lost," who, in Calvino's reckoning, have an essential beauty to them.
I love the text and the imagery of this alternate world, filled with the plants and animals that "might have been", and the idea of birds as the cross-over agent. They are extraordinarily varied and playful creations, aren't they? I'm inspired to try to create this alternate sound-world.
7:40am-8:20am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
All this murky, hazy weather makes me feel like I'm half-asleep, and I long for a burst of blue-skied sunshine to awaken me to my full energy.
It makes me wonder about relative energy of various states of weather.
What if we never had blue skies, like the Ray Bradbury short story, "All Summer in a Day", where it is perpetually rainy (save for one moment of sunshine every 7 years)? What if the perpetual rain was constant, and there was never even that one moment of sun, so we wouldn't even know what we were missing?
Would our scale of appreciation be re-calibrated such that a brightly foggy day would actually be a cause for great excitement, as a distinct improvement on the typical, darker, grey days?
Inversely: what if there was another, more glorious and light-filled version of the sky that would make sunny blue skies look as shabby as an overcast day is now?
Today's bird is a mystery*! Perhaps a finch of some kind?
At home, after watching lots of birds chase each other in the park, I imagine a piece where two violins chase each other (sonically). More extravagently, I imagine creating the effect of motion by placing 10-12 violinists, in pairs, throughout the space, and have the chasing effect hop around the room.
Turns out Friday's sunshine fooled my body just briefly; I spent the weekend fighting a cold.
So much for pushing myself in hopes of getting back on the sunrise wagon. It's been so hard lately, what with Acadia "hangover", late-night rehearsals, and sunrise ever earlier.
I guess my body just needs more rest than I've been giving it. My clever psychological trick of setting the time on my alarm clock an hour late (because 6am looks way less daunting than 5am) isn't enough to make up for so many hours of lost-sleep.
I simply have to accept that I am not as hard-core as I'd like to be, as much as it hurts my ego to admit it.
Saturday I was in bed all day, and didn't make it out for my daily walk. However, I decided to appoint as the birds-of-the-day the birds (robins?) who, at 3:45am, were making a racket outside an open window when I went downstairs for some water.
No recording, just a memory of my aching throat and unfettered annoyance at these birds for singing so far in advance of dawn.
Today I was feeling a bit better, and I took a dusk stroll in Bussey Brooks Meadow. It was a lovely dusk chorus, and I swear the place feels even more like a jungle in this misty drizzly half-light.
Today's bird made a really distinctive two-syllable creak:
Here it is in context:
I suspect it is a Common Grackle, as it was a medium-sized black bird (lacking the red patches of the red-winged blackbirds).
7:00am-8:00am, Peters Hill, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
sunny, almost all-clear, gorgeous!
So, it's not my fault it's been so hard to get up in the mornings - it's the weather!
Amazing how quickly my fatigue dissipated when I was out this morning in beautiful, clear sunshine. On dreary days (of which we've had so many lately) I wake up groggy and grumpy, and stay that way!
The gate to Peters Hill was packed with parked cars, and shorts-clad runners were everywhere. "Fair-weather friends," I thought to myself snobbishly, remembering the long winter of scant visitors (and that one crazy runner who would run on ice).
I finally IDed the bird that eluded me a couple days ago as a Baltimore Oriole. Until today, I had been either seeing the Oriole, or hearing this call, and not able to link the together. So here he is, Today's Bird:
He's a cheery singer, and I wonder if the Triplet from a couple days ago might have also been an Oriole?
I can't resist putting up one more clip - two little grey birds who were flirting/courting quite vigorously (you can also hear the Oriole in the background):
7:00am-7:45am, Bussey Brook Meadows, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
hazy with rain clouds, slight breeze
I heard my first Hermit Thrush south-of-Maine this morning, what a treat!
It took several minutes of patient listening to confirm, as there were so many overlapping bird-calls that at first I thought I'd discovered a new bird.
It's a bit of a Where's Waldo to find him in context - can you?
However, Bird of the Day goes to my new hero, the incredible Catbird. This bird, I decided, is the one I most would like to emulate. He imitates many different birds very well- I especially like his take on the robin - and also throws in some of his own material.
A Freestyler who isn't afraid to borrow, nor to invent.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011 7:15am-8:00am, Arnold Arboretum
cool, breezy, misty overcast
It was good reverse psychology to not bring binoculars today: I came across lots of interesting new birds who I couldn't really see clearly.
There was today's bird, who proclaimed the first triplet (grouping of three notes) I've heard in the last 7 months of this project:
Here is my version:
There was an all-yellow bird.
There was a rather loud bird I could hear but could not see, even after several minutes of intense searching.
Lately, there are pairs of birds chasing each other all over the place (sometimes blatantly scrambling on top of one another!), but today's flirtation was pretty unusual: a little yellow-and-black bird chasing a skinny red one - inter-species dating?
8:30am-9:15am, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA
cool, overcast, a bit drizzly
Today's bird was pretty groovy - you'll need to listen beyond the noisy "chik" complaints of the squirrel behind me:
After catching him at the base of Bussey Hill, I took a slow and drizzly ramble down the Conifer Path. I enjoyed guessing if the trees I saw were pines, firs, spruces, or hemlocks, after having learned some clues at Acadia's National Junior Ranger Day. I especially remember a little mnemonic one visitor shared:
"Pines are plenty, firs are flat, spruces are square".
"Plenty" refers to multiple needles coming out of the same spot, "flat" is the general horizontal plane on which all fir twigs on the same branch lie, and I think "square" has to do with either the shape of the needle, or the 3-D, four-directional way that the spruce needles stick out of their twigs.
I was also relieved to see that all three of these trees are in the Pinaceae Family: I had been worried that my casual references to Acadia's "pine forests" were inaccurate, that the firs and spruces were a different family. But they are not!
Hurray for the Arboretum's painstaking labelling of each individual tree!
Monday, May 9, 2011 5:40am-6:10am, Bussey Brook Meadows, Jamaica Plain, MA
cool, misty cloud on horizon
I'm still trying to take in this unfamiliar territory. So lush and filled in - the birds are hard to spot through all this new foliage! The marsh no longer appears to be much of a marsh - tall grasses have filled it in almost completely.
I hung out with a nice robin, but he got usurped by a new species - grey bird with dark grey cap, making funny mimic-y and also squeaky sounds from the top of a tall tall tree. My first catbird!
He had competition from a nearby song sparrow in this recording, so here is the song sparrow first:
Now, filter out that song sparrow while you listen for the catbird:
I think this may be the same individual bird that I got yesterday from my balcony - he's on the same tree!
At home I remembered that one of the distinctions between the Catbird and Mockingbird is that the Catbird, in addition to mewing, only sings each mimic one time, while the Mockingbird usually repeats each phrase 3 or more times each. I am kind of trying to become a mockingbird of the violin, I realize, and so I sketch a piece where I repeat each mimic 3-4 times.
8:40am-9:40am, Sundew Trail, Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, ME
foggy, rainy, grey
It's my last day here at Acadia, and I make one last circuit of the Sundew Trail. I'm nostalgic already for these delicious pine forests, the secluded paths, the benches by rocky coasts and crashing waves.
The almost-neon green of the lichen astonishes me as much as it did the first day, and I wish I had brought my camera. But I intentionally left it at home, to better experience the walk. Enough documentation-mode on this trip!
The Bird of the Day is the Golden-Crowned Kinglet, little flitty pine-loving guy who I finally got a glimpse of:
A foggy day looking over a misty ocean is a nice space to think in.
I've been thinking a lot about limits, and about the courage it takes to do less. I tend to try to do too much, and found this to be the case even on this residency, when I was limited to one project, instead of the usual juggling of several.
Was I here to hike, field-record birds, transcribe birdsong, compose, study birds and Messiaen, practice my birdcalls, or perform? OK, maybe all of the above, but what were the priorities? It was sometimes hard to decide.
I wonder how things would have developed if I had stuck to my rule of One Bird a Day - a policy I threw out the window in my eagerness to take full advantage of Acadia.
To take on more just because you have more time can result in doing less with each endeavor. I got overwhelmed at times, bogged down.
Perhaps the real lesson is the value of patience. To know that there is a lot of time ahead, to spin things out at their own pace. I do have my whole life to learn birds (/compose/practice/explore).
I am determined to limit my endeavors upon returning to Boston, to delve more deeply and calmly into a few things. Clearly A Bird a Day could occupy me full-time, and still feel like not enough time - a helpful lesson from this residency!
On my way home, I kept hearing monotone trilling birds, and monotone beeping tractors, leading me to sketch a new piece with different pitched and variously paced beeps.
Here is an excerpt of a piece that is relevant to all these topics: being overly busy, finding calm; the beeping trucks, the kinglet. Recorded at Tuesday night's concert, it's my composition from April 28
I'm thinking of calling the piece "Sanctuary" - it begins with a "cameo" of three different tractor pitches and a crazy, overwhelmed, too-busy head-space, then moves into the peaceful sanctuary of a pine grove full of Golden-Crowned Kinglets (the audience was helping me out by whistling here, though some of them were embarrassed and laughed as well)
5:10am-5:20am, around SERC campus, Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia NP, ME
cold, overcast, drizzly
I am determined to capture - sonically - the chickadees and robin that have been regularly singing before dawn outside my bedroom window.
As soon as I hear the robin this morning, I roll out of bed and hurry out. However, when I get to that side of the building, there’s no sign of the robin. Did I scare it away? The only one I hear is almost 2 “blocks” away, by the campus entrance, and he's so fragmented I'm not even sure he's a robin!:
I’m in recovery mode after the big push of the last couple days, and taking it easy today. I decide to try cracking a window tonight and surreptitiously getting the recording from inside my apartment tomorrow!
Tuesday, May 3 5:45am-6:15am, Loop Road, Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia NP, ME
cool, variegated clouds
The sky was a beautiful egg-crate, pink-lined rippling of clouds this morning. A pleasant surprise! I was prepared for rain all day.
The bell buoys are tolling, beautiful and evocative. They are the true subject of today’s recording, though the gulls get the Bird of the Day title:
Tonight I have the first public performance for A Bird a Day at the Moore Auditorium here, and I have a very busy day getting my pieces ready. The hardest is the piece I’ve been working on based on the Hermit Thrush, whose melodic song seems trivialized by any of my creative ideas. Yet I keep trying.
In the end, I create a sort of echoing effect as a response to the built-in echoes of his song. Here's an excerpt of that section of the piece:
Postscript: The performance went well, it was a small but enthusiastic audience, who were willing participants in their whistling (Golden-Crowned Kinglets) and rain-making roles. I performed one composition from October, three new pieces from my time in Acadia, and even put up some slides: the nifty wireless slide-advancing technology was irresistible.
I am hugely relieved to be done, and encouraged by the positive feedback - I really wasn't sure what I'd have to share after just one week of residency.
More recordings from tonight's performance to come!
Monday, May 2, 2011 4:20am-6:20am, Anvil Trail and Loop Road, Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia NP, ME
cold, windy, very clear except for low bank of clouds on horizon
My first visible sunrise of the residency! It was very cold and windy on my rocky vista point, but beautiful. On my walk home, I saw my first bald eagles – a pair of them, graceful and dark in flight, cruising over a marshy wetland. Pretty thrilling, though once they landed they were more clumsily-shaped than I had imagined.
9am-2pm, western part of Mt. Desert Island: Wonderland Trail, Beech Cliffs Trail, Acadia Mountain
sunny, warm, slight breeze
I can’t seem to get out of “do-it-all” mode. It’s the last sunny day predicted for my time in Acadia, and I feel compelled to take in my fill of the weather and the outdoors, so that I can peacefully work indoors the rest of the week.
The Wonderland trail is only a little over a mile-long loop, but is noted for birds, so I had to check it out. Meet the bird of the day, this fellow, here:
Then, couldn’t resist hitting up the Beech Cliffs Trail, which has lots of stone stairs and the slim metal ladders that Acadia is famous for. It was scary stuff going up, but WAY scarier going down! Yikes! Thin, slippery rungs made wet by my own shoes. They are bolted, but within a bit of a U-clamp, so that they can shift a few milimeters and make alarming sounds as you work your way down.
I was shamelessly cautious, clinging to the woven metal ropes and inching my way from steep stairs to vertical ladders. I am amazed they are accessible to the public, given the obvious liability. Suffice it to say no national park could get away with building such things now – they are a welcome vestige of a less lawsuit-obsessed era.
Lunch is at the summit of Acadia Mountain, with breath-taking vistas of Somes Sound, Echo Lake, and several surrounding peaks and islands. I feel lucky, and maybe a little sunburnt (which, after the long winter, is another kind of luck!).
Turkey vultures circle gracefully over the valley before me, a truly stunning sight. Thankfully, they are too far away for me to smell their urine-soaked (bathed!) feet, whose reek and function Ranger Angi has warned me of.
5:20am-7:20am, Alder Trail & Loop Road, Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, ME
chilly, windy, partial clearing
From a few tiny hints of pink in the sky, it looks like there’s a bit of a visible sunrise to the east, but I’m on the wrong end of the peninsula to see it.
Today I’m exploring the Alder Trail, which runs through “old farmland” according to my trail guide. The good news is there’s lots of brush for birds along the trail.
It’s an active day for wildlife, who seem unaccustomed to humans in these parts. I see my third porcupine of the peninsula, who immediately runs up a tree – I’ve been told they do that when scared. It’s pretty cute, and I coo at it before going on.
A very funny-looking bird waddles rapidly across the path – he appears to be wearing a skirt – and a couple of rabbits later, I hear him, my bird of the day:
At last, the famed wing-created beatings of the Ruffed Grouse!
OK, so this recording is a poor approximation, though I promise I experimented with many surfaces (chest, belly, couch, pillow) and hand positions (open, cupped, scarfed) before picking this as the closest I could get. Check out Cornell Lab's site for an actual field-recording.
The real thing was amazing – like hearing my own heart beat outside my body. It was a deep yet weightless pulsation that I seemed to feel inside my chest as much as I heard it with my ears.
There were some funny white-throated sparrows too,
and after hearing so many, I finally visually-sighted both a white-throat and a winter wren today.
Oddly, it didn’t feel very real, the sightings – almost as if I was watching them on TV. Maybe that’s the impact of the binoculars, creating an artificial intimacy, or the result of staring at too many pictures in field guides?
At home, I wrote a piece that incorporated both the rocking waves of the coast, and a bit of grouse wing-beating rhythm. Here’s a clip of it:
April 30, 2011 4:20am-5:20am, SERC campus, Schoodic Peninsula, Acadia National Park, ME
cool, windy, drizzly
Well, with enormous effort I finally got up for the Famous Pre-Dawn Hour, and it was not at all what I had hoped.
Perhaps it was the rain that kept a lid on things. Or I didn’t find the right spot. Or it’s just too early in the migration period here in Acadia to get a glorious dawn chorus.
I suspect it’s all of these things, and especially the latter.
Anyhow, my hope of recording the true order of bird entrances (which sings first, which second, etc) and recreating this musically, was somewhat dashed by the haphazard nature of what actually happened.
For a long time, nothing happened, and I got nervous about staying in one place. A very very noisy lobster boat went by in the harbor at about 4:30am, awful sound. Then quiet.
The first birds I heard were gulls. Then, a very very faint winter wren, which I decided to leave my spot by the woods to check out. I’d walked just a few yards when I realized sparrow and hermit thrush were also singing, though I couldn’t tell you who came first.
Basically, I had to walk around to hear the different birds (including white-throated sparrow and brown creeper) as they were too spread apart. I couldn’t just stay in one spot and enjoy a glorious orchestral unfolding all around me. Darn.
My idea then was to write an imagined dawn chorus – how I’d like it to sound, I get to pick the order of the birds! At home I further wondered about creating a fantasy dawn chorus – full of imaginary birds. Might be a bit silly, but could be fun!
Funny anecdote of my time at National Junior Ranger Day, where I was showing kids some of my bird sounds:
I didn’t have a stamp to mark their passes, so I offered to hand-draw a bird, sort of cartoon-style.
Well, my first little visitor, about 5 or 6 years old, was sort of studying his afterwards, so I asked him if it was OK, playfully offering to redraw it better.
“I don’t want anything more! I want you to erase it!”
Thus my burdgeoning career as bird-sketcher is dashed..