Sunday, April 27, 2014

My Childhood Bible

Today (April 27) is the birthday of Roger Tory Peterson, the American artist who created the first field guide for easy identification of living birds in the field (as opposed to shooting first and examining at leisure, as had been previously done). He utterly transformed how people perceived birds and was a catalyst in making birdwatching popular, a factor that helped us understand our environment and take steps toward better protection and stewardship. The Peterson Field Guides also helped people learn about trees, flowers, and all sorts of living creatures in addition to birds. My mother’s old battered copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds was my childhood bible. My own copy, now superseded by newer field guides, nonetheless retains its place as the first of my many field guides.

With Peterson, art was his means of perceiving, understanding, and analyzing birds and bird behaviour, AND his means of communicating his understanding to the world. His life story, particularly his early years is very interesting, and is just one example of how and why the arts need not, nor should not, be partitioned from other fields of study or endeavors.

The Peterson bird guides include pages of silhouettes, a useful aid for those learning to ID birds at a distance. Currently at the New Britain (CT) Museum of American Art is Wondrous Strange, an exhibit of works by James Prosek in which the artist includes Peterson-style silhouettes as part of his commentary on how we perceive nature. From the museum website:
James Prosek’s work takes its inspiration from the long tradition of natural history painting; from animal depictions on cave walls to the works of Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, and John James Audubon. His contemporary influences are wide-ranging, from Lee Bontecou and Mark Dion to Martin Puryear and Eero Saarinen. In particular, Prosek’s work is conceptually focused on how we name and order nature, including the limitations of language in describing biological diversity. His art challenges us to reflect on how our culture, our priorities, and our values are manifested in systems we use to classify and harness nature. The paintings, monumental watercolors, and sculptures in the exhibition range from realistic to fanciful, though all are rendered with meticulous precision and detail. Many are the result of extensive travel, collecting trips and biological expeditions to places as distant and diverse as Suriname and Kyrgyzstan. Ultimately, it’s the realms that science cannot quantify or solve and the power of personal experience that are Prosek’s fertile ground.
It’s a very interesting exhibit, provocative and beautiful at the same time. Well worth a vist. The exhibit closes June 8.

Monday, April 21, 2014

“Every genuine thing retains this tone”

“The birds are singing in the rain about the small pond in front, the inquisitive chickadee that has flown at once to the alders to reconnoiter us, the blackbirds, the song sparrow, telling of expanding buds. But above all the robin sings here too, I know not at what distance in the wood. ‘Did he sing thus in Indian days?” I ask myself; for I have always associated this sound with the village and the clearing, but now I do detect the aboriginal wildness in his strain, and can imagine him a woodland bird, and that he sang thus when there was no civilized ear to hear him, a pure forest melody even like the wood thrush. Every genuine thing retains this tone, which no true culture displaces. I heard him even as he might have sounded to the Indian, singing at evening upon the elm above his wigwam, with which was associated in the red man’s mind the events of an Indian’s life, his childhood. Formerly I had heard in it only those strains which tell of the white man’s village life; now I heard those strains which remembered the red man’s life, when these arrowheads, which the rain has made shine so on the lean stubble-field, were fastened to their shaft.”
—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), April 21, 1852.


Images © Quodlibet All Rights Reserved.


More about birds and birding at this blog:

Bird Behavior

Birding (about the activity of birding)

Birds in Literature and Art

Birds in Migration

Birds in My Backyard

Birds Out and About [my "patch" around town, outside my backyard]

To Refresh and Strengthen

Northern Cardinals are known to mate for life, and to stay together throughout the year. During the non-breeding months, though they remain together, they are more like siblings and less like spouses.

In late winter and early spring, the pairs engage in ritual feeding to refresh and strengthen their pair bond prior to their mating, egg-laying, and caring for their young.

Usually these feeding rituals last for just a few seconds; I’ve felt lucky to have been able to capture a few of these fleeting moments, such as this photo:

At present, we have two pairs of Cardinals coming to the feeders, and they are clearly two mated pairs.

A few days ago, one of the mated pairs (I think it’s an older pair) stayed on one of the feeders for several minutes, long enough for me to capture their tender-seeming behavior on video:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

“What’s that? A bird? A bat?”

I was chatting with my friends T and R on Sunday morning on the sidewalk in the very center of New Britain. T pointed to the street next to the curb and exclaimed, “What’s that? A bird? A bat?” A closer look revealed this unexpected sight:

Leonardo: Ginevra de’ Benci

To mark the birth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci, born Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, in Vinci, Italy, on this day in 1452, here are my photos of one of his lovely paintings, his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Life’s Persistent Questions

Most of the questions that bother me originate, I suppose, in my adult impatience with inefficiency and irrationality, and my annoyance with people who get in the way. Questions such as:

“A fine view of a blue heron”

 “…We had a fine view of a blue heron, standing erect and open to view on a meadow island, by the great swamp south of the bridge, looking as broad as a boy on the side, and then some sheldrakes sailing in the smooth water beyond. These soon sailed behind points of meadow. … When the heron takes to flight, what a change in size and appearance! It is presto change! There go two great undulating wings pinned together, but the body and neck must have been left behind somewhere.”
— Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Journal, April 15, 1855.

I saw a scene very much like the one Thoreau described, on a wet day in November at a small park in my area. I had driven into the area to see what ducks might be there, but my attention was completely drawn to the large Great Blue Heron that stood like a sentinel on the grassy edge:

Peale: A Dessert

I really enjoy the “still life” genre, and seek out examples on our museum visits. Here’s a gem from the National Gallery:

A Dessert (1814), oil on wood
Raphaelle Peale (American, 1774-1825)
National Gallery, Washington DC
Image ©2014 Quodlibet. All rights reserved.

Flickers and Flashes of Gold

A flash of gold caught my eye outside the kitchen window... By the time I looked out, I saw nothing… until I looked more closely and found a female Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker. Here it is:

Can you spot it?

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Word for All You YECs


Young Earth Creationists.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

—Galileo Galilei, physicist and astronomer (1564-1642)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Barnacle Goose: “An impossible thing to be”

The recent sighting of a Barnacle Goose in Massachusetts reminded me of the silly origin of the name of this handsome European goose. And since Christians are now deep into the Lenten season, this “information” is especially relevant.

During Lent, it has been traditional for Christians to give up luxuries, including foods considered to be luxurious, such as meat, sweets, etc. The Church carefully defined what was permitted for consumption on fast days, enumerating detailed rules and prohibitions. For example, “meat,” defined as the flesh of quadrupeds or birds, was forbidden on fast days; however, eggs, dairy products, and fish (including crustaceans) were allowed.

So what does all this have to do with the Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis), which is clearly a bird? Well, Barnacle Geese were once believed to be crustaceans, and therefore they were considered suitable for consumption during Lent.

What? Yes. Here’s the story:

Monday, April 7, 2014

I could use one of these!

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Friday, April 4, 2014

Discouraging and disappointing

I prepare concert program notes for classical choral ensembles. I invest a great deal of time, thought, and care in researching and preparing good notes that will enlighten, entertain, and engage members of a concert audience.

I’ve given up trying to generate any revenue through my program notes; most choral ensembles simply do not have money to engage a professional annotator. As part of my volunteer service to ensembles in which I sing, I often provide program notes gratis to those ensembles. Occasionally my notes will garner notice, and I receive an inquiry from a prospective client someone who also wants them for free.

A few months back, I received an inquiry from the Artistic Director of an amateur choral ensemble who had been in the audience for a performance by one of the groups in which I sing, a concert for which I had prepared the program notes. What should have been a pleasant opportunity to support a fellow artist turned into a discouraging and disappointing situation.

Here is the actual correspondence between that Artistic Director (AD) and me (Q), edited to remove identifying information.

Can you see why I come away from this experience discouraged, disappointed, and feeling slightly used?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

“Like little celandines”

Melbury perhaps was an unlucky man in having the sentiment which could make him wander out in the night to regard the imprint of a daughter’s footstep. Nature does not carry on her government with a view to such feelings; and when advancing years render the opened hearts of those that possess them less dexterous than formerly in shutting against the blast, they must inevitably, like little celandines, suffer 'buffering at will by rain and storm'.
 ―Thomas Hardy (British author, 1840-1928), The Woodlanders

A celandine is a delicate wild flower, a member of the poppy family, easily bruised.

“That thin stratum”

“The last two Tribunes I have not looked at. I have no time to read newspapers. If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events which make the news transpire,—thinner than the paper on which it is printed,—then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them.”
— Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Journal, April 3, 1853.


Well, I agree with Thoreau up to a point.

Manship: Flight of Night

On recent visits to the Wadsworth Athenaeum (Hartford, CT) and the New Britain (CT) Museum of American Art, I enjoyed looking at two different castings of Flight of Night (1916) by American sculptor Paul Howard Manship (1885-1966): 

Old Friend

As I’ve written earlier, it’s possible to identify and become familiar with individual birds, both in the field and in the backyard. Maintaining bird feeders makes this easier of course, especially when one watches the feeders carefully on a daily basis.

This is a tribute to an old friend, now gone

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Purple Grackles at my feeder.

Common? Oh, yes.

Uncommonly beautiful? Oh, yes.

More photos:

May Require Careful Handling

The first thing to do on arriving at a symphony concert is to express the wish that the orchestra will play Beethoven’s Fifth. If your companion then says “Fifth what?” you are safe with him for the rest of the evening; no metal can touch you. If, however, he says “So do I”—­this is a danger signal and he may require careful handling.

—Donald Ogden Stewart, “Revolutions” (Chapter 1) from Perfect Behavior (1922)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Near the end of January, on my way home from points north, I detoured through a favorite stretch of agricultural fields. The light was waning, and a hint of color began to develop in the mostly-cloudy twi-lit sky:

I hurried on to my meadow, where I watched in wonder as this spectacular scene unfolded before my eyes:

Scarlet Eye and Rakish Crest

This Cooper’s Hawk stopped briefly near our deck in January. This is the gorgeous adult female that hung around for most of the winter. Look at her brilliant scarlet eye and rakish crest!

Meadow Mist: No Ghost, But Geese

The other day when I was “out and about” (read: birding) I ventured into my meadow—it was a gloriously misty day, and I was hoping to see the Grey Ghost in there, silver wings against the silver mist.

No luck with the Harrier, but there was a nice flock of Canada Geese moving about, their cries mysteriously disembodied in the mist. And their silvery-dun-black-white bodies (actually very similar in palette to the Harrier) suited my frame of my mind.

“So surprised by the fact”

I am surprised that my affirmations or utterances come to me ready-made,—not fore-thought,—so that I occasionally awake in the night simply to let fall ripe a statement which I had never consciously considered before, and as surprising and novel and agreeable to me as anything can be. As if we only thought by sympathy with the universal mind, which thought while we were asleep. There is such a necessity to make a definite statement that our minds at length do it without our consciousness, just as we carry our food to our mouths. This occurred to me last night, but I was so surprised by the fact which I have just endeavored to report that I have entirely forgotten what the particular observation was.
— Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Journal, April 1, 1860.


Oh, that’s just too funny. Yes, the human mind is an amazing thing. 

Listen to the Mockingbird

The other day I was “out and about” – that is, looking at birds – on my way home from a meeting. I stopped in at a local cemetery that has a good variety of habitat, everything from lawns and shrubbery to riparian and wooded areas. It being a warm and pleasant day, I had the car window down, and was delighted to hear one of my favorite songsters:

“More durable than the eternal hills”

In the Adirondacks, September 2012
Image © 2014 Quodlibet. All rights reserved.
Words are the only things that last forever; they are more durable than the eternal hills.
— William Hazlitt, 
English humanist and essayist

Van Gogh: Green Wheat Fields, Auvers

Here’s a belated birthday recognition for Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, born on March 30, 1853 (he died in 1890, just 37 years old).

On a recent visit to the National Gallery in Washington, DC, we had the opportunity to see a new acquistion, a lovely painting by Van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, painted in 1890:

One must be

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.

—Abraham Maslow, psychologist (1908-1970)

Something more earnest and significant

Methinks I would share every creature’s suffering for the sake of its experience and joy. The song sparrow and the transient fox-colored sparrow,—have they brought me no message this year? Do they go to lead heroic lives in Rupert’s Land? They are so small, I think their destinies must be large. Have I heard what this tiny passenger has to say, while it flits thus from tree to tree? Is not the coming of the fox-colored sparrow something more earnest and significant than I have dreamed of? Can I forgive myself if I let it go to Rupert’s Land before I have appreciated it? God did not make this world in jest; no, nor in indifference. These migrating sparrows all bear messages that concern my life. I do not pluck the fruits in their season. I love the birds and beasts because they are mythologically in earnest. I see that the sparrow cheeps and flits and sings adequately to the great design of the universe; that man does not communicate with it, understand its language, because he is not one with nature. I reproach myself because I have regarded with indifference the passage of the birds; I have thought them no better than I.

— Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Journal, March 31, 1852.