Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vicarious Déjà vu?

.This morning I indulged in some “desk work” with my Brahms Requiem score, in preparation for [ensemble]'s upcoming performances.

“Desk work” entails sitting and staring silently at the score. Well, there’s more to it than that, of course; what I’m actually doing is thinking, working over the music in my inner ear, embedding words and rhythms in my memory, analyzing the forms and structures of the music, and taking time to understand how my part fits into the entire work. “Desk work” is entirely separate from practicing, which is vocal work done at the piano or (sometimes) with a recording. Sometimes during desk work I go to the piano to work out an intellectually challenging vocal line or to unravel some knotty counterpoint, but most of the “desk work” actually takes place at the island in the kitchen, laptop at the ready, so that I can enrich my thinking with research and supplemental information.

This morning, I was deep into a silent study of the D major fugue of the third movement, internalizing the wonderful syncopations of the soprano part in the extension of the first exposition (mm.185-187). Hmm…that sure reminds me a passage in the Credo of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, specifically, the countersubject in the “et vitam venturi” fugue. I went online to see if there might be any info on this connection…more on that another time. But while I was browsing, I did find a real gem: a photofacsimile of a full score of Brahms Requiem that had belonged to Richard Barth (1850-1908). I believe that this is the first edition, issued by Brahms' friend and publisher J. M. Rieter-Biedermann.

Barth, a virtuoso violinist and conductor, was a friend of Brahms and was a member of the composer’s inner circle of musicians and intellectuals. As a youth, Barth had so severely injured his left hand that he could no longer play the violin conventionally; nonetheless, he taught himself to play “backward,” executing the fingerings with his right hand and bowing with his left hand (his instrument was also strung “backward”). Barth, who had studied with Joseph Joachim, performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto under Brahms’ direction, and toured to Amsterdam with the composer.

During his career, Barth often performed and conducted Brahms’ works, in particular the Requiem. The facsimile I found online seems to have been the copy from which he conducted; on the verso of the title page is a list of the dates, cities, and soloists for ninenteen performances of the Requiem between 1894 and 1917. Inside, the score is liberally marked with red and blue penciled cues and notes. Of particular interest in Barth’s score are numerous notes about the contrabassoon and organ, indicating the passages in whichthese distinctive instruments should (and should not) play. There has been much discussion over the years about the contrabassoon and organ parts in the Requiem; perhaps Barth’s notes provide some clue to Brahms’ wishes?

A little frisson comes over me here…one can imagine Brahms and Barth sitting down together, score between them, a bottle of Brahms’ favorite Rhenish near at hand, sorting it all out with great good cheer. Take a look...see if you get the same feeling that I did – can I call it “vicarious déjà vu”? It’s not a memory of my own experience; rather, it’s my imagined memory of what Barth’s experience might have been.

Note the bookplates inside the front cover…on each you may see the main theme of the fourth movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. While on one of his beloved mountain vacations, Brahms had famously jotted this theme on a postcard that he had sent to his close friend Clara Schumann; that anecdote lives on in the mountain-themed bookplate on the left, which shows that this score had once belonged to Richard Barth. The bookplate on the right implies that this score was later owned by Brahms scholar Kurt Hofmann.

(There’s also an intriguing poem handwritten in German on the flyleaf…If I’m able to find or devise a translation I’ll post it. Unlikely, though.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beethoven’s Stars

Over the past two or three years, I’ve had the pleasure of performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony several times. One of the many advantages of performing this music so many times within a relatively short time is that I’ve really had a chance to learn it inside out, not only as a singer, but as a music historian, poet, and person. The Ninth Symphony is so substantive – not just the music, but what Beethoven tells us about humanity as the music unfolds – that to begin to understand it requires care, attention, and desire, not just during the weeks of preparation, but for months before and after the performances. As I’ve written earlier (see link at the end of this paragraph), as part of my personal preparation for these performances, I invested substantially in reading, studying, and analysis of the score and text. I’m still thinking and learning about it all, and looking forward to performing the Symphony again later in the 2009-2010 season. You can read about my reflections on preparing and singing this music so often, and for different audiences, here:

Beethoven packages his Message of (and to) Humanity in what is certainly some of the most memorable music ever written. A few years ago K pointed out to me, very astutely, that Beethoven had been wise to devise a simple melody for the “Ode to Joy” theme (“Freude, schöner Götterfunken”). “It’s like a folk song,” she said, adding that “Beethoven wanted people to remember it. It’s easy to remember and anyone can sing it. That’s important for music that carries such a big idea.”

There’s another moment in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony that I find equally compelling and very magical. It’s in the section before the final double fugue, beginning at measure 627, marked Adagio ma no troppo, ma divoto (Slow but not too much, but devotedly). Here the music drops to its knees as the choir asks: “Do you fall down, O millions? Are you aware of your Creator, O world? Seek Him above the starry firmament!” Beethoven responds to the question musically: a rising stair-step series of diminished intervals unfolds in the high winds, practically forcing us look up, up, up to find the answer, “For above the stars He must dwell.” The stars shimmer ethereally as the orchestra repeats the diminished harmony in pianissimo triplets. Then the brilliant and climactic D-major double fugue bursts like comets and meteors from the starry sky: “Let me embrace you, O millions! Joy, beautiful, divine!”

How this moment must have burned itself on the heart and mind of Johannes Brahms! Some forty years after Beethoven completed his Choral Symphony, Brahms invoked Beethoven’s starry heavens in his own masterwork Ein deutsches Requiem. In the third movement of the Requiem, the baritone soloist and choir ask, “Now, Lord, O what do I wait for?” Though the passage builds powerfully, it is restive and unresolved, and it finally falls away in a series of diminished chords, as the choir repeats the searching question, “O what do I wait for?” Brahms answers the question not in words, but in music, by giving us, unmistakably, Beethoven’s starry sky, in a suddenly-familiar series of diminished chords, sounding quite high in the orchestra in pianissimo triplets. The music commands us to Look up! to find the answer. Brahms’s double implication – that what we wait for is above us, in the starry heaven, and that Beethoven’s musical depiction of this concept is definitive – invokes an immediate sympathetic response and recognition in any listener who knows Beethoven’s Ninth. Brahms’ setting of the phrase which follows (“My hope is in Thee”) is ecstatically reverent, rising inevitably in a searing crescendo before the joyous D-major fugue that closes the movement.

Knowing as we do the degree to which Brahms revered Beethoven, it is not surprising to find homage to the Ninth Symphony in the German Requiem. But earlier this year, I found Beethoven’s stars in a less likely, and wholly unexpected, place. It was during [an event] devoted this year to choral music of Maurice Duruflé, with that master’s Requiem as the centerpiece of our study and performance. The opening words of the final movement, In Paradisum, are these: “May the angels receive you in Paradise.” The first four bars of the movement which precede these words unfold as stair-steps of diminished chords, piano, rising, rising, rising steadily to heaven. The evocation of Beethoven’s starry sky is unmistakable – indeed, it is almost an exact quotation, though in a different key – and the command to the listeners to Look up! is irresistible. One does not customarily think of Duruflé as having been markedly influenced by Beethoven, but perhaps the starry diminutions of the Ninth caught his ear and his imagination, as happens with me, every time.

© 2009 Sarah Hager Johnston All rights reserved.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sapsucker Season

To a large degree, seeing interesting birds depends on plain old good luck.

A few minutes ago I went to the kitchen to fix a cup of tea. As usual, while the kettle heated I scanned the backyard feeders to see what might be out there. A few Mourning Doves, the little flock of annoying House Sparrows, and a pretty red male Northern Cardinal. A woodpecker flew past the kitchen window to the suet feeder in the wisteria, swooping so close to the window that it was nothing more than a dark blur.

A dark blur? Hmm…that’s different! Dark. Chunky. That’s not a Downy Woodpecker, which is very small and mostly white… And it’s definitely not a large, slender, mostly-white Hairy Woodpecker… And the brown Flickers never come up this close to the house… Oh boy, it’s a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker! Wait! There’s another one! Two Sapsuckers!
As I watched these two pretty birds explore the wisteria arbor just outside the window, then move to the elm tree where more feeders are hung, I made a mental check-mark on the seasonal birding checklist that I maintain in my memory (I’m a “listless” birder, as I wrote about HERE). I’ve been waiting and hoping that a Sapsucker would arrive here soon, and here were two. Lucky day!

In late October 2006, a single juvenile Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker stopped at our suet feeder for a few days, feeding and resting during its migration. A single male (the same bird?) also stopped by briefly in October 2007. I didn’t see one in the fall of 2008, but a single adult male Sapsucker (the same bird?) arrived in early January 2009 for a lengthier stay, creating havoc among our flock of resident woodpeckers. (Read HERE about that bird, its remarkable feeding behavior, and the resulting “Woodpecker Wars.”)

The Sapsuckers at our feeders this morning are juveniles, sporting intricate, very attractive black, brown, and white plumage. Their underparts show the soft yellow wash that gives them their “Yellow-Bellied” name. (They are very assertive, if not aggressive, certainly not “cowardly” as we might associate with “yellow-bellied.”) On one bird, I could see bits of red emerging on throat and nape, marking it as a male, and enabling me to differentiate the two individuals easily. I wonder if they are offspring of last year’s adult? Did he lead them here to “drop them off” at a known food source?

As striking as their plumage is, these young birds blend in beautifully with the vari-colored and highly textured bark of the elm tree where the suet feeders hang. When they are still, they can be hard to spot. They are quiet birds, too, especially compared to the noisy Red-Bellied and Hairy Woodpeckers, which typically announce their arrival with loud calls.

By the time I head back to the kitchen for my next cup of tea, these two travelers might already be gone, continuing on their southern migration. Or perhaps, like last year’s visitor, they’ll stay for several days or weeks. Either way, it’s a thrill to see them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Tyranny of Poetry

If you’ve visited here before, you may know that I love reading, and writing, and words, and the way words are used. In fact, I often fall prey to the tyranny of poetry, a phrase that came to me this afternoon. I’d been thinking about a note I sent to a colleague and wondering if it had been a bit over the top, and whether I’d been blacklisted (it happens). When the inbox remains eerily empty for nearly a week, where normally there is an abundance of messages, you can’t help but wonder.

I get into all sorts of trouble because I cannot resist the rhythms, the shapes, the varied and marvelous meanings of words. Perhaps it's because I'm also a musician; my thinking seems dominated by rhythms, tones, and structure, whether it's in music or in words. Much as I revel in the internal harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic structures in music, I delight in parallel constructions, tidy metaphors, expansive vocabularies, the cogent appeal of a well-turned sentence, and the inevitable and natural rhythm of iambic pentameter.

I’ve never met a thesaurus I didn’t love, and I confess to being “one of those” who reads the dictionary for fun. (And in each of my choral folders there's a stack of crossword puzzles for those occasional stretches backstage or before rehearsal when I need a quiet bit of something to do.)

Words can be seductive, enticing one into entrapments and snares, woven of golden and silken threads that are so beautiful, sounding and feeling so very good that one fails to see how very dangerous they are.

Now, while this propensity is useful when I’m writing poetry, or describing a bird watching outing, or (especially) writing about my musical experiences, it can sometimes be a real liability.

I always have to be on guard not to introduce lyricism for its own sake, despite the temptation.

If I’m writing a report for a client, for example, I have to work very hard to keep excess poetry out. The client does not care if I’ve used a beautifully turned metaphor, and he may not even notice the subtle phonetic or orthographic alliterations that turn dull prose into something bright and interesting. He may sense that this is not “business writing as usual,” but will probably not take time to consider what makes it different and why he might find it interesting and engaging.

In writing program notes, a certain amount of lyricism is encouraged, even expected, but only when it serves the larger purpose of illuminating the music about which I’m writing.

My biggest challenge comes in personal communications, especially when I'm writing to those who also love words, who I hope will respond to the lyric touch. But too often, I let words shape my message, rather than the other way around. The poet in me hopes (assumes?) that the reader will sense my desire to impart beauty and to rise above the ordinary, and will understand that I let the words flow because they must. I regret that this writer-reader connection doesn't occur as often as I hope it would. In my personal interactions, I probably confuse and distance people who read or think prosaically, or who don't expect sudden influxes of lyricism in routine communications. And email complicates everything, since it’s too damned easy to send off a message and impossible to recall it, and where, like a comet, a sent message seems to leave a burning trail of regret as it flies off through cyberspace. [See what I mean??]

So the days go by, and I wait and wonder and worry.

[Oh, isn’t that the coolest alliteration?]

[revised 10-23-09]

Driven to Distraction

A few days ago I sent a letter to the editor of The Hartford Courant. It was published yesterday. Here it is:

In her Oct. 19 letter ["Mom-itering Young Drivers"], M. Regina Cram wisely advises that parents forbid teens' use of electronic devices while driving. But teens are only part of the problem. In the same issue of The Courant, a summary of new research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety [World & Nation, "Hand-Held Bans Vex Drivers, Study Finds"] provided numbers to back up what many of us see every day on Connecticut's roads: Most people who use hand-held cellphones while driving are adults between the ages of 25 and 59. I was recently nearly broadsided by a middle-aged woman too busy texting to notice she had run a red light.

Here's an action plan:

To legislators: Give us a law with some teeth. Penalize phone-impaired driving as severely as we punish drug- or alcohol-impaired driving. They are equally risky. Provide enough money so that police can get dangerous drivers off the road.

To law enforcement: Arrest drivers who break the law and put the rest of us at risk. Wouldn't you rather issue a ticket than respond to a fatal accident?

To drivers of all ages: Hang up and drive! Pull over if you must use the phone. Is it worth the risk? Your lives — and ours — are at stake.

You can read the letter online HERE at The Courant's website, where you can also review (and add to) the comments that other readers have appended.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hide and Seek

I was at the living room window watching White-throated Sparrows (always hoping to spot another White-crowned!) when a flash of scarlet caught my eye. Our large, very handsome resident Red-bellied Woodpecker, with its scarlet crown and nape, swooped flamboyantly into the oak tree, a large chunk of suet in its bill. It appeared to be looking for something, hopping and scrambling here and there. Finally it pushed the piece of suet into a hole where a small branch had been broken off. The bird had been looking for a good place to stash a suet snack to enjoy later on a cold winter day.

Wait – no good. The bird was not satisfied with the hole; it removed the suet piece and flew to one tree after another another, trying and rejecting several places.

Next, the woodpecker flew to the top of the backyard fence, where he found a niche between the two cross-pieces of lumber that connect the corner post to the gate post. OK, in it goes… Wow, it went a long way down! Where is it?! He looked under the cross-beam where, sure enough, the suet chunk had fallen through. No problem…he grabbed it neatly and tried the other end of that section of fence, where a similar hole was found. In went the suet, and this time it did not fall through. Great!

Uh-oh… a nosy House Sparrow was watching, hopping closer and closer along the top of the fence. (Those pesky sparrows love suet – read about it HERE.) The grey-brown female sparrow, undaunted by the bigger woodpecker’s menacing wing-flashes and rasping calls, crept closer and closer.

The woodpecker removed the suet from the hole, hesitated, then returned to the no-good bottomless hole, keeping his back to the sparrow. He then pretended to stuff the suet in the hole, giving a persuasive performance as he jabbed his head and beak several times toward the hole, holding the suet in his bill the entire time. Then, without turning around, keeping his back to the sparrow, off he flew with the suet firmly in his grasp, to find a secure, more private hiding spot.

As soon as the woodpecker was gone, the sparrow dashed to the fake hidey-hole and spent several minutes trying to find the suet chunk that she was sure was in there.

A few minutes later, the woodpecker was back at the suet feeder, grabbing another chunk for his winter larder.

Did the woodpecker deliberately trick the sparrow into thinking he had left the suet there? Researchers report that eastern grey squirrels create fake caches where they pretend to hide food, and scrub jays, crows, and ravens (all members of the highly intelligent corvid group) have been observed in similar behaviors. So perhaps our woodpecker was, in fact, pretending to hide the suet. In any case, the sparrow certainly was fooled.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Traffic Stops

On my morning drive today, I had the option of sitting in traffic on the north side of the river, or sitting in traffic on the south side of the river. I opted for the south side, having done more birding on the north side in the past few weeks. The southern route takes me through the Meadows, where I’ve seen some great birds in the past.

I paused there to check a large flock of resting Canada Geese, hoping that some rarer geese might have been mixed in. Last year at this spot, I found a rare White-Fronted Goose and (on a separate day) six Snow Geese. Today – no such luck. But as I watched, I noticed that the muddy field in the foreground of my view was alive with little birds – about 100 American Pipits (read HERE about my experience last week with pipits). Their silvery calls seem just right for the golden-silvery light that streams across the meadow during the early morning, illuminating the rising mists and touching the vari-colored trees with fire. So that was nice.

I drove on across the meadows and was about to leave the area when an unmistakable shape caught my eye…. Oops, can’t stop, there’s a line of traffic behind me. Shoot ahead to a little parking area, turn around, rush back and park in a convenient gravel lot … there it was, a lovely Northern Harrier, a juvenile bird with rich brown plumage and that unmistakable white rump. It glided low over the field, tipping and tilting as it went. Like owls, harriers hunt for prey by listening for movements on the ground. And like owls, harriers have facial disks – concave feathered areas around their ears – which gather sounds and help them pinpoint the location of their prey (frogs, mice, etc.). The harriers tip and tilt as they fly to “point” their ears in various directions.

(Earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to watch an adult male harrier hunting over large fields by the Saint Lawrence River. With silvery-grey plumage and black wingtips, this beautiful bird is known affectionately by birders as a “Grey Ghost.” And it really is ghostly, as it flies low over the field, dipping below the grass now and then, leaving an impression of a silvery wraith…)
The harrier rose over the trees and dropped down into the next field. As I started to pull out of the lot, another distinctive shape flashed by… I jammed on the brakes… Peregrine! A large, dark Peregrine Falcon (a juvenile) landed on top of a light pole very close by, calling and calling. I had a perfect view and got a good look at this, my favorite bird, before it took off again. It circled high, then dove down low over a flock of pigeons, scattering them but failing to grab one. It rose up and over the field again, then headed for an interior meadow.

So, in just one week, I’ve seen all three of our falcon species in town: American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. I also saw a Red-Tailed Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a Cooper’s Hawk this morning, leaving me feeling raptor-ous.

I also stopped briefly at a small lake across the highway, where I saw Greater and Lesser Scaup, a pair of Spotted Sandpipers, a magnificent Great Blue Heron, a Belted Kingfisher, several noisy and colorful Killdeer, Ruddy Ducks, distant teal (sp?), cormorants, and a flock of Mallards. On the way home, a few roadside stops yielded some good mixed flock action: American Robins and Cedar Waxwings devouring cedar berries; dozens of Yellow-rumped warblers eating poison ivy berries, a nice Blue-headed Vireo, a Blackpoll Warbler, and a bunch of Flickers.

In the past several days, we’ve had some new visitors at home, including first-ever yard sightings of White-crowned Sparrow and Palm Warbler. The Dark-eyed Juncos have arrived, and I hear the White-throated Sparrows in the hedgerow, though they aren’t at the feeders regularly yet. Ruby-crowned Kinglets come through almost every day, and yesterday a Yellow-rumped Warbler was at the suet. The family of Cardinals has emerged from the woods, visiting the feeder every day now (all five of them). The woodpecker action has been non-stop all year.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Stop, Look, and Listen

Sometimes you just have to go on instinct.

The other day, pressed for time as usual, I decided that I didn’t have time to make any birding stops on my morning drive.

But as I approached the big agricultural area where I’ve had such good luck birding in the past few weeks, I sensed that it would be a good day to drop in there. The miserable weather – cold, drizzly, with a few specks of early snow – meant that birds would be hungry and out foraging. And now, at the height of fall migration, you never know what will turn up. So I decided to stop for just a few minutes to see what might be there.

Along the first part of the access road, trees and shrubs on one side, and a tree-edged field on the other side, offer great mixed habitat. The poison-ivy and bittersweet vines are loaded with berries, and all sorts of birds were feeding busily in the trees. This fall I’ve been keeping a mental list of some of the birds I’ve observed eating the greeny-gold poison ivy berries, including Black-capped Chickadees, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and American Robins.

As I rounded the corner into the open fields, I saw that the areas to the right of the road had been freshly plowed, probably the day before. Before me was a huge expanse of neatly tilled, rich brown muddy dirt – beautiful stuff, but entirely empty of visible life. I felt a stab of disappointment, as I had hoped to see lots of sparrows among the weeds and corn stubble that had been there earlier in the week. I just sat and looked at the muddy furrows, contemplating whether to go further.

As I stared across the brown expanse, it seemed to come alive….there were birds, dozens, a hundred, perhaps as many as two hundred little brown birds walking and feeding in the field! So well did they blend with their surroundings that until I had stopped and remained still and receptive I never saw them at all.

What were they? A quick glance with the binoculars showed that these were American Pipits, slender brown-and-buff streaked birds that breed on the tundra at the northernmost reaches of the continent. They pass through our area on the way to their wintering grounds in the Southern U.S. and beyond. In Connecticut, a few may overwinter at large grassy areas along the coast. At first glance they look sparrow-like, but their slender bills, more elegant shape, and walking (not hopping) behavior are distinctive.

I turned off the truck and sat there for quite a while; soon, they were all around me on the ground, taking short flights back and forth, and calling their sweet “slip-ip” notes (Sibley). It was interesting to see how much food they pulled from the seemingly-barren muddy field: insects, worms, seeds, and other tasty tidbits that I couldn’t identify.

I was parked right next to a brushy edge with a few small trees, where all sorts of sparrows were busy with the weed seeds. Song, Savannah, Lincoln’s, Chipping, Vesper, and Swamp Sparrows were all there, and Palm Warblers (Eastern and Western) and Yellow-rumped Warblers added some soft yellow accents. A little “pishing” had them jumping to the top of weedy stalks to get a better look at me, and I got some great looks.

After a while, I went on. Good thing I had the truck that morning, as recent rain had left the access road muddy, with deep puddles in some of the lower areas. My understanding husband says he doesn’t mind the constant mud on the truck (“That’s what it’s for,” he says.). I engaged the four-wheel drive and squelched through.

A quick flashing movement caught my eye… low across the field, scattering the Pipits, a Merlin blasted through, looking for breakfast. This feisty medium-sized falcon is probably the most common of our falcon species. After a few turns around the fields, it perched on a bare branch of a nearby tree; by coincidence, this was exactly the same spot the local American Kestrel had used for a hunting perch. It sat there for a while, looking cold and hungry, then took off for fields on the other side of the river.

Lots of good birds have been coming through the yard at home, too. I’ve spotted Ruby-crowned kinglets and Yellow-rumped warblers, and yesterday three late Purple Grackles visited the feeder. I’m still waiting for the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker to return; we’ve had one resident in the yard for the past two winters. A small flock of White-Throated Sparrows stopped for a while the other day; when I took a few moments to look at them closely, I was delighted to see a rarer White-crowned Sparrow among them. The last (and only) time I’d seen one of these handsome birds was in Yosemite National Park. So that was a treat.

Always stop, look, and listen! You never know what you might see.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sparrow Stravaganza

I confess to having favorites among the birds I see regularly – I love ducks, woodpeckers, and raptors above all others. As I was telling K this morning, I find the sleek, colorful plumage of the ducks and woodpeckers irresistible. Of course, all birds have beautiful plumage, but somehow the ducks and woodpeckers seem especially lovely. The relatively large size of most ducks allows for lots of color (Wood Ducks! Pintails!), and the flashy behavior of most of our woodpeckers gives us a chance to see the wing linings and wing patterns that are unobserved in many other birds.

So, in my admiration for my favorites, I confess to giving short shrift to whole families of birds, especially those that pose identification challenges, such as gulls, sandpipers, and sparrows.

Sparrows! More than a dozen species of sparrows may be found in Connecticut, and some from outside our region may be seen during migration. Though I am familiar with the sparrows that visit our feeders (Song, Chipping, White-Throated, Fox, Tree), and a few others I see while out and about (Savannah, Swamp), I really don’t know the other sparrows and haven’t put much effort into looking for them or trying to learn them at sight. Perhaps it’s my poor eyesight (again, remember that I love big bold ducks and flashy woodpeckers) and the fact that I’ve never really had the good binoculars I’ve needed until quite recently.

Well, as of today I have a new appreciation for these little birds. This morning I took a v-e-r-y slow trip through the big meadow in the center of town, off the main road. The fields have been partially mowed and some have been plowed already; the resulting acres of corn stubble, uncut corn, weedy and shrubby edges, and plowed soil attract a great variety of birds. Before I entered the area, I paused and scanned the fields with the binoculars; I could see many dozens of birds feeding and fluttering, rising for short flights and dropping down again a few feet further on. Gold mine!

As happens too often, my planned “quick trip” extends to a half hour or more as the birds hold me fascinated. Today was Sparrow Stravaganza: I lost count of the Song Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Chipping Sparrows., and I was very lucky to spot at least a dozen Lincoln's Sparrows and a few Swamp Sparrows, and several Grasshopper Sparrows, a new life bird for me.

Among the other avian treats were a half dozen female Bobolinks, their warm gold color really beautiful in the goldy-green corn. When their black and white mates are present, it’s too easy to overlook the pretty females. They were kind enough to perch for several minutes on some remaining stalks so I could observe at leisure. When they flew, I could see their spiky tails, which help differentiate them from similar-looking sparrows.

Palm Warblers were all over the place! These little birds with yellow belly and chestnut cap breed in Canada and the northernmost parts of New England, favoring bogs and muskeg areas. Observing them foraging on the ground in this muddy Connecticut field, I was amazed to think how far they’d traveled and how far they still had to go before they reached their wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and Caribbean areas.

Yellow-rumped Warblers were also numerous here, flitting between ground, grasses, and the small trees along the edge of the road. Despite the lateness of the season, many birds were singing, including the Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Carolina Wren, Catbird and Mockingbird, and the Chickadees and Titmice. It has to do with the length of day and quality of light, which at this time of year is similar to spring.

So, I enjoyed seeing all these sparrows and working to identify them. It paid off with a few rarities and a new life bird. Still, it would have been exciting to see a Sharp-Shinned Hawk swoop in…

Forgot to mention a few good birds from yesterday’s trip: Rufous-Sided Towhee, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eastern Bluebirds, Scarlet Tanager, Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron eating a great big fish, Hooded Merganser, and an American Kestrel.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Morning Rounds, Part 2

My morning drive takes me past several “birdy” spots with a variety of great habitat. Depending on the weather, the traffic, and my schedule, I’ll stop at two or three of these havens; I rarely have time for them all. Yesterday I wrote about several spots on the first part of the route (read it HERE). Here’s a rundown on the second part of my commute.

Near the center of town – ours is a classic old New England village – several large agricultural fields are a haven for all sorts of wildlife. Local farmers cultivate corn, cabbages, beans, and hay, and a large area is set aside where residents can plant gardens. The Farmington River runs through the whole area, enriching the soil with spring and fall floods, and supporting a diverse riparian habitat. At all times of year, this area is a goldmine for birds. I’ve seen many grassland species, including many beautiful sparrow varieties, blackbirds, flycatchers, ducks and geese during migration, and, of course, raptors that hunt over the fields. A stop in near the corn fields the other day yielded my first Lincoln’s Sparrows, an American Kestrel (two days in a row; migrant or resident?), and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 Northern Flickers (beautiful woodpeckers) flying from tree to tree, headed in a generally southerly direction. I spent some time watching the activity in a large Poison Ivy vine which was loaded with berries. Did you know that the berries of this native plant are an important food source for birds? Chickadees, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, American Robins, Downy Woodpeckers, White-Breasted Nuthatches, and Catbirds all enjoyed the feast. The ivy leaves had already turned a deep wine-red, making a stunning backdrop for the colorful birds. My list of “best” birds in this meadow area over the past few years includes Peregrine Falcon, White-Fronted Goose, Northern Harrier, American Kestrels, Willow Flycatcher, and several days ago, a flock of about 50 Killdeer, a large and showy plover species.

One of my favorite local birding spots has a nice variety of habitat: meadows and fields (yes, there is a difference!), a pond, a stream, a swampy area and a small marsh (yes, there is a difference!), hardwoods, conifers, hillsides, a swale, lawns and gardens, and a small farm. Living and dead trees, shrubs, grasses – all these make good homes for a variety of birds. I stop there once a month or so.

Cemeteries are often good places to find birds. They’re quiet (naturally) and often planted extensively with ornamental shrubs and trees that provide cover and food for a variety of bird species. I often stop in our town’s largest cemetery which combines lawns, hedgerows, large trees, and a riverside habitat. This is a reliable place to find Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, Bluebirds, and Eastern Phoebes. A pair of Red-Tailed Hawks has raised its family here for the past two years, and I’ve also sighted Cooper’s Hawks here every week or so. The other day, I saw a small flock of crows mobbing (harassing) a young Cooper’s; the battle lasted several minutes until the Cooper’s finally flew off. Other raptors come through here, too; during spring and summer, Ospreys patrol up and down the river, and occasionally a Bald Eagle may be seen. This spring I was delighted to see a migrating Magnolia Warbler, and I enjoyed hearing Warbling Vireos sing their wiry, spiky song all summer. On one memorable winter day, I saw all three species of Merganser – Common, Red-Breasted, and Hooded – in one small area on the River. This was special, as all three are rarely seen together, and the Red-Breasteds are rarely seen inland in the winter.

My favorite birding area is my own backyard, where several feeders attract a variety of beautiful avian visitors. The other day I was surprised to see a Red-Eyed Vireo hanging about with the House Sparrows. This young bird was obviously interested in the suet feeders, but couldn’t quite work up the nerve, or couldn’t figure out how to get at it. Our first White-Throated Sparrows showed up this week; yesterday a nice mixed flock in the yard boasted several of these handsome songsters keeping company with a Northern Cardinal and a Rufous-Sided Towhee (first time I’ve seen one of these in our yard).

What Will it Take?

In recent months, as I’ve driven around Connecticut, I’ve become increasingly cautious about entering intersections, even when a green light signals to me that it should be safe and legal for me to proceed. The reason? Too often, one, two, or sometimes even three drivers will run the red light from the other side of the intersection. This is a particular risk at one major intersection near me, where cars and trucks frequently fly through the red lights at 50 mph or more. I’ve learned that “green” means “look, then proceed with caution!”

Lately, another factor has made even a quick grocery run more dangerous: distracted driving.

The other day, I was the first in a line of cars waiting at a red light to leave a supermarket parking lot in Unionville. The light turned green. Rather than hit the gas, I paused and looked both ways. (Immediately, of course, the person behind me tooted impatiently.)

But oh boy, was I glad that I had waited and looked.

A large blue pickup truck, bigger than my own large vehicle, barreled through the red light, traveling at least 40 mph in an area where most traffic was stopped or moving very slowly. As the vehicle passed by me, I could see into the open cab where the driver, both hands balanced on top of the steering wheel, was texting rapidly on her cell phone. It’s fortunate that there was a gap in traffic on the other side of the intersection, because she never even looked up. She finally took her eyes off her phone in time to start visibly, slam on the brakes, and avoid rear-ending the slowly-moving vehicle in front of her, but it was a close call.

If I had proceeded on the green light, I would have been struck directly, and my vehicle would probably have been pushed hard into the other cars in the intersection, injuring or perhaps killing other drivers and their passengers, and putting the pedestrians on the sidewalk at risk.

Was this distracted driver one of the teen texters we’ve been hearing so much about lately? No. It was a middle-aged woman, neatly dressed, focusing on her text message instead of on her driving task.

Perhaps the texting driver was trying to get in touch with one of her kids or her spouse, or letting a waiting friend know that she was running late to their board meeting.

But if I had proceeded legally into the intersection, I would have been severely injured, if not killed. I would not have been able to pick up my daughter from her friend’s house where she was waiting for me. I never would have made it home to cook dinner for my family, visit with my husband, read the books I had just borrowed from the library, answer the letter from my mother, and do the volunteer work for the nonprofit board on which I serve. My vehicle would have been destroyed, too, though that seems less important than the loss of my life or health, and the burden that would place on my family.

This frightening scenario is probably repeated countless times across Connecticut every day, and it's not just teens who are causing the problem. Take a look at the drivers around you; it's not surprising to see half of all drivers of all ages and descriptions using their phones for texting or talking. (Don’t even get me started on phone use by drivers of big rigs, tankers carrying hazardous materials, and buses!)

What will it take to reduce this risk? More accidents, deaths, broken families?

We don’t need more studies. Research from reputable institutions has shown clearly that distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. The distraction – whether it is a phone conversation, texting, applying makeup, shaving, or reading – impairs concentration and decision-making in much the same way that drugs and alcohol do.

We impose very harsh penalties for drunk or impaired driving, up to and including loss of license. If distracted driving is just as dangerous, and just as preventable, then why not impose similar penalties?

Until we have strong laws to include distracted driving with other impaired-driving offenses, until we levy appropriate fines and punishments, until we provide enough police officers to enforce the laws, and until we charge them with getting impaired drivers off the road, we will continue to read about the horrific crashes, injuries, deaths, and shattered families caused by distracted driving.

Why can't we acknowledge what is happening and apply the logical solution? What will it take to wake us up?

I lived through that near-miss the other day, but only because I have learned to be afraid.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Morning Rounds, Part 1

My morning drive takes me past several “birdy” spots with a variety of great habitat. Depending on the weather, the traffic, and my schedule, I’ll stop at two or three of these havens; I rarely have time for them all.

First stop is often a little riverside lot where I look for ducks and other water birds. (Read HERE about a particularly wonderful birding experience I had there recently.) In spring and summer, this is also a good place to see perching birds that like “edge” habitat, particularly flycatchers, warblers, vireos, orioles, and the like. The riparian (river) habitat is also a great place to see Bald Eagles and Ospreys, both of which I’ve seen here.

My route takes me next through agricultural fields and rolling hills, where field-side trees and shrubbery offer good cover. Here I look for blackbirds, bobolinks, swallows, sparrows, and other grassland birds. On a lucky day, I’ll see an American Kestrel, our smallest falcon. This beautiful, colorful little hawk is endangered due to development of open grassland and a lack of trees appropriate for nesting. The Kestrel, a cavity nester, prefers old woodpecker holes in dead trees but will use nest boxes when they are provided. It consumes many grasshoppers, mice, and other agricultural pests.

Next stop is an old vacant lot next to an unused industrial building. A vacant lot? Yes, it’s a great birding area with a scrubby grassy weedy field, an adjacent cornfield, lots of trees on the edge, and a nearby stream. I saw some great birds there this morning: a Rufous-Sided Towhee (a female and the first I’ve seen in ages), a Black-Throated Blue Warbler (female, migrating), several vireos, several Phoebes, a Peregrine Falcon dashing overhead, a Red-Tailed Hawk being mobbed by a murder of crows, a Grey Catbird, and other common birds. Other good finds here (in season) include Indigo Bunting, many woodpeckers, whole families of Killdeer (a large, showy plover), heron flyovers, more warblers and vireos, and lots of flycatchers.

After threading through a darkly wooded section (look for Wood Ducks on the little pond), the sharply sinuous road emerges into another large open area, with athletic fields, a natural area with a small lake and walking trails, extensive agricultural fields (corn, alfalfa, hay), a large stream and a small wooded pond, and pastures bordered by mixed woods and the Farmington River. Birding heaven!

First to the parking area next the lake. Here’s where I fell in love with a very birdy old tree (read it HERE) that was cut down later in the summer (as told HERE). (I’m still aching over that.) This is a good spot for ducks and geese (spring and fall migration), herons, kingfisher, flycatchers, and grassland birds (bobolinks and sparrows, in particular). A Willow Flycatcher was in residence this summer. Here, too, was where I witnessed an interesting encounter between some young Cooper’s Hawks and several crows, as described HERE. This is also a good spot to see Baltimore Orioles, Orchard Orioles, and the warblers and vireos that frequent waterside wooded areas. Warbling Vireos are reliable here.

Nearby, there’s a little rustic parking area with views over the alfalfa fields to the River, and a lovely peek across the stream to the little wooded pond. This morning, a migrating Kingfisher rattled loudly over at the pond, perching in the scarlet swamp maple in between fishing sorties. He caught and ate several little fish while I watched. I saw a gigantic river otter here this spring, as well as Osprey and, one day, a coyote. This is also an excellent place to find Hooded Mergansers in spring and fall. Red-Tailed Hawks nest in the woods across the road, and there’s usually one or the other of the pair at the top of the big oak tree out in the alfalfa field The brushy edges are host to warblers, vireos, buntings, and beautiful sparrows – Song, Savannah, and Swamp have all been seen here. A pair of Baltimore Orioles nested here this spring, and it was great fun to be here to see the parents feeding several fledglings. Tree Swallows are abundant here, too, and this summer the young ones used a nice tree over the stream as a staging point for feeding and flying lessons. I had the privilege of watching one young Tree Swallow at play – read it HERE.

My route takes me next through a long stretch of cornfields and pasture, where I frequently see wild turkeys, deer, the occasional fox or coyote, and almost always at least one Red-Tailed Hawk. Last week, a Great-Blue Heron was hunting in the field; I presumed it was looking for small rodents and perhaps snakes. It was strange to see it so far from the water. On one memorable day this spring, I watched about 40 Bobolinks swirling and swooping over the meadows, singing the whole time. In spring and summer, Red-Winged Blackbirds guard the field edges; each fence-post has its sentry, red epaulets flashing in the sun.

Those are several favorite spots on my "morning rounds"… I’ll cover the rest in a future post.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Just Like On TV

Once in a while I’m lucky enough to be at the right time and place, and paying enough attention, to see something really special. Earlier this spring, for example, I happened to stop at a favorite birding spot just in time to see an enormous river otter splashing and cavorting its way along the broad stream…I watched it for about five minutes before it disappeared around the bend. At the same spot on another day, I watched a coyote hunting field mice in the newly-mown meadow. And on one special morning, as I stood on my back deck, our resident red fox trotted almost up to the edge of the deck and looked me squarely in the eye for a few precious moments before veering off around the house. Unforgettable.

This morning, I saw a scene so amazing that if I had seen it on television I would have questioned its veracity and might have thought it had, somehow, been staged.

On my morning drive, I sometimes stop in a little commercial parking lot right at the edge of the Farmington River. At that hour in the morning, the lot is always empty and quiet. I can look up and down the river, and have a clear view across to the opposite bank, where woods come right down to the river, and a cell tower looms over it all. I like to stop there to get a good look at the Red-Tailed Hawk that frequently perches on top of the tower. This morning, both Red-Tails were there, beautiful in the early sun.

As soon as I pulled into the lot, I saw a large adult Great-Blue Heron stalking in the shallows on the opposite bank, where several ducks were also busy feeding. A closer look with the binoculars revealed several Mallards, a brilliant male Wood Duck, and a first-year female Common Merganser (short crest). The Mallards and the Heron were very busy in one area which seemed to be teeming with small fish or some other tasty treat. The Wood Duck trolled up and down the bank, with the Merganser always following close behind. At one point, the young Merganser reached out and nipped, or pulled, the Wood Duck’s tail! Wonder why? Food? Fun? Feistiness? The Wood Duck was not amused and for a few splashy moments it wasn’t clear what the outcome would be. Soon, the Wood Duck continued swimming about feeding, with the Merganser close on its tail.

My attention was distracted by movements in the woods …. Two White-Tailed Deer, a doe and a young one, came down to the water to drink, their delicate steps making almost no sound at all. The birds looked up, but were not afraid.

This was the “made for TV” moment – the morning sun filtering through the trees to the water, the sun-lit mist rising above the river, the silver-blue Heron, emerald-headed Mallards, multi-hued Wood Duck and pearly-grey Merganser moving about in the sparkling water, the russet-and-white deer drinking and raising their heads, dripping, above the water, and above it all, the two Red-Tailed Hawks serenely overseeing the scene.