Monday, December 8, 2014

Rare Birds: The Movie

Since beginning to watch birds a little more seriously, I've become aware of a sub-genre of movies: birding films. Rare Birds had been in my Netflix's queue for awhile, probably suggested because I had borrowed The Big Year. It arrived a few days ago and I watched it last night.

I'd never heard of the movie despite its starring one of my favorite actors, William Hurt. Hurt plays Dave Purcell, a depressed and somewhat reclusive restaurant owner in Newfoundland (great scenery). He serves first class meals at The Auk, but does nothing to drum up business, spending his days sampling his great wine cellar. In fact, many of the locals think the restaurant has closed.

A friend, Phonce, devises a plan to drum up business by reporting sightings of a rare bird in the area. This attracts hordes of bird-crazed people with binoculars. Phonce is a conspiracy nut, paranoid that Winnebago is trying to steal his plans for a personal submarine but he always has a plan and he plans to keep The Auk open and his friend in the area. Of course two years earlier Phonce found several kilos of cocaine off-shore and narcs may be in the area trying to catch him selling the dope. It's unclear whether Phonce is partaking of his "treasure" but William Hurt certainly snorts a few lines in several scenes.

Along the way Dave jettisons his estranged wife who is living in Washington DC, gets help running the restaurant from locals who make supply runs, wait tables, and help with the food preparation, and falls in love. The only "action scene" is one where Phonce and Dave are testing the submarine and it is unclear whether they will survive. The first two-thirds of the movie are quirky with a whimsical touch of rom-com. Unfortunately by the
end it is a little over the top and falls apart. Even worse, there are few birds. I counted only three mentioned: The Auk, for which Dave's restaurant is named; the rose-crested grebe; and the Tasseter's Sulfurious Duck. The duck is the supposed rare bird everyone is searching for. In fact it is a fictional species.  I don't find any information about a rose-crested grebe so it is either made up or a very uncommon name for another grebe (possibly the red-necked grebe?). The movie doesn't even talk about auks. Auks can hardly walk and have very small wings which they use to "fly" underwater. They are related to puffins and black guillemots.

Bottom line: An enjoyable, if not distinguished, independent film that really has nothing to do with birds or birding.

Interesting things:

The movie was shot in 30 days except for the last scene. Unexpected early snow delayed filming for seven months until the snow melted!

The crew who had been shooting The Shipping News contributed equipment and their services to complete the movie.

The movie's premiere was scheduled for September 11, 2001. Of course that never happened, and the film was pretty much sent to rental.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bird Brainz: Birds, Birding, and Books: H is for Hawk

Bird Brainz: Birds, Birding, and Books: H is for Hawk: I don't generally read memoirs but sometimes it is good to get out of your comfort zone and read something different. For several months...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

H is for Hawk

I don't generally read memoirs but sometimes it is good to get out of your comfort zone and read something different. For several months I kept seeing notices about H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It had a lot of characteristics that don't make it "my kind of reading." I'm not a big reader of "literary" books--too many books, too little time. It's described as a "misery memoir" and I don't need to read about other people's miserable lives. It's won a lot of awards and that usually means it's a "literary" book (see previous comment). It's British and they have a funny way of spelling words. Also every time I looked at the jacket, I was sure this was a book for kids and was disappointed when I realized (once again) it was not. I know. I'm shallow but there are only so many hours in the day and I spend as many of them birding as I do reading.

On the other hand, the book is about hawks and other birds. So I jumped in--and I'm glad I did.

Struggling to deal with her father's sudden death, Helen returns to a passion of her youth--falconry and hawking. Specifically the book explores her work with a goshawk she names Mabel. Goshawks are described as "birdwatcher's dark grail," but also as the ruffians of the bird world. Goshawks are a group of more than two dozen birds of prey although the Norther Goshawk is the only one found in Europe and North America. (View a short clip from the Smithsonian Channel of a goshawk in Korea striking for the kill.) Macdonald's lyrical descriptions of the goshawk brings the bird to life.

In addition to being a memoir of the months following the loss of her father when she trained Mabel as her way of grieving, H is for Hawk is a history of falconry and a nature book. Macdonald mentions early on that as a child she "cleaved to falconry's disconcertingly complex vocabulary." There are so many great words that are high scoring ones for Scrabble! Knowing the correct words was extremely important in the old world of birding (A spy was terrified that he'd be found out because he had trouble remembering the idiosyncratic words, while the terminology also helped maintain falconry as a sport for the upper crust in Europe.) The history of falconry, as told by Macdonald, is fascinating. They were used in the Crusades and were political pawns in wars. Saladin refused to return the "white gyrfalcon owned by King Philip I of Spain" when it got loose during the Siege of Acre. But falconry and hawking goes back even farther to 2,000 BC China and reading H is for Hawk I learned things I never knew I'd like to know.

Falconry is also the story of survival for the goshawk in Britain. Labeled as "vermin" rather than hunting companions, they were persecuted to extinction in England by the late 19th century. Macdonald mentions that she has a photograph of the "stuffed remains of one of the last birds to be shot." By the 1960s and 1970s falconers started to reintroduce the goshawk, importing them from the Continent. Part of the reintroduction included setting one free for every one you used for hunting. These birds survived and found each other so that today there are over 450 pairs in Britain. The birds flown today are identical to those of 5,000 years ago.

Mixed in with the contemporary story is Macdonald's obsession with T.H. White, best known for writing  The Sword in the Stone. Also a falconer, White wrote a memoir about his training, published as The Goshawk (which Macdonald read as a young girl!) and Macdonald frequently contrasts her training of Mabel with White's training of his hawk, Gos. She postulates about White's lonely and brutal childhood and its impact on his training techniques with his hawk. Who knew that the author of the best books on Arthurian legend had such a secret and tragic life! (Side note: Macdonald came to the University of Texas at Austin to research White, as his papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center.)

Goshawk killing a heron (Creative Commons)
And finally there is the specific story of  training Mabel. Following Macdonald through months spent working with Mabel, the reader also learns about many other birds in Britain, the birds the pair see during their walks and flights. While I cringed at descriptions of Mabel's kills, discovering how the hawk hunts and how falconers teach them to hunt and return was amazing. (And frankly, as a vegetarian I had a hard time reading about Macdonald's feeding chicks and other meat to Mabel. Yes, I know animals don't make the choice to change their menus but the descriptions are fairly bloody.)  Macdonald mentions that for her, falconry is"about revelling in the flight of the hawk, never in the death it brought." But like a proud parent at a sporting event, she admits to being pleased when Mabel was successful.

Anyone interesting in raptors will race through this book!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bird Humor

Birders tend to be either very serious folks or fun-loving silly people. After all, we spend a lot of time chasing after elusive little critters. It helps to have a sense of humor.

Fall migration is underway, and Jim and I took a 2 week vacation to Canada and New England (Talk about needing a sense of humor; I went expecting to see a lot of birds....but that is another post) so I haven't been writing.

Maybe it's me but I've started seeing a lot more bird and birding humor in comic strips. So quick post....thanks to Mutts!

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Hummers Are Here!

Reports are coming in from across Texas as the hummingbird migration begins. One measure of the size of the population is the number of hummers at feeders. I put my feeders out a few weeks ago and have had erratic feeding until this past week. Now there are three or four birds that stop several times a day.

As a reminder, the formula for nectar is 1:4 sugar to water. Only use regular sugar--no organic brown
sugar, raw sugar, or powdered sugar. Some raw and brown sugars have honey or other additives that can be harmful to the birds. Do NOT add coloring or buy the premixed nectar that is red. It is not necessary and may be harmful. Also unless your water is especially hard you don't need to boil the water. Just ensure that the sugar has mixed in well. Be sure the feeders are clean. That black stuff is mold that can cause the nectar to spoil quickly. What feeders you use isn't as important as being able to clean thoroughly (and types of feeders is a subject for another post). Hummers are territorial so if you are attracting more than a couple of birds you need multiple feeders. Just don't fill each feeder all the way as you need to change the nectar every couple of days in the summer heat.

If you aren't getting birds at your feeders, you'll really enjoy watching the hummer cams. A Rockport group, WWN, puts out a camera that streams live. Check it out at

For a real immersion into hummingbirds, plan to attend the 2014 Rockport HummerBird Festival, September 18-21. Hundreds of hummers can be seen at homes that open their gardens to festival-goers. People often comment about the number of hummers that swarm around (I suggested it was like swarming flies one year there were so many circling me.) and how close you get to them. It's free to tour the hummer homes and maps can be picked up at the local Chamber of Commerce office.

Hummer "butt"
While most of the birds in this area are ruby-throated hummingbirds, last year a calliope stopped by for the festivities, attracting quite a crowd at Zachary Taylor Park. One really fun thing is to watch the master bander putting little tiny bracelets on hummers so that they can be tracked. Two years ago I was able to see a sight few see--a hummingbird's bottom! The banders catch the hummers in mesh sacks, weigh them, check for gender, place the band, and then release them. Often one of the watchers is allowed to hold the hummingbird for the few seconds it takes the bird to get itself together to fly off.

Calliope Hummingbird
In addition to seeing the birds, as well as many other birds that are migrating through the coastal bend, the festival offers exceptional classes, programs, and tours. I was able to spot a number of birds on the bus tour to Fennessey Ranch including a green jay! This year I'm planning to take one of the photography classes offered. Check out the schedule for information on the other events and programs, including a lecture by Sharon Stitele, aka Birdchick. ( I just learned she also shares abeekeeping operation with Neil Gaiman. Yes, Neil Gaiman!) Her book, 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know provides practical tips along with humorous information about birding. Other programs focus on making your garden bird friendly, endangered hummingbirds, Texas woodpeckers, and more. While the focus is on hummingbirds, the event is called the HummerBird Festival to include the many other species in the area. I'm planning to hit several of the programs and will write up some of what I learn in a future post.

Oh, but I can't forget...the festival also features a shopping mall with everything birds and birding. I'm planning to find a bird bath! In the meantime, I need to put out fresh nectar. The birds are getting impatient.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

They Grow Up So Quickly

Parents creating nest
Photo by Jeanette Larson
In the past couple of years, I've seen skimmers pretty regularly during out visits to Rockport but this is the first year I've been able to actually watch their full cycle of life. Just before Memorial Day the birds started to gather and make nests on Rockport Beach.

Skimmer egg
Photo by Jeanette Larson
Skimmers are monogamous and the mates each take turns scraping away a place in the dirt and rotating in the sand to create a saucer-shaped depression. They are colonial birds so many nests are close together and they will nest near the gulls that are also preparing for their eggs. It can take up to about a week for the female to lay 3-5 eggs. The eggs can be tough to spot because both parents incubate and they are flush with the ground sitting on the depression. You have to be patient and watch for a chance to see them when whichever bird is sitting moves, turns around, or changes out with the other. The eggs are very vulnerable and gulls will take any opportunity to swoop in and steal an egg to eat.

Skimmer chick (note beak)
Photo by Jeanette Larson
The skimmers are very protective and aggressively mob intruders to keep them away from the nest and to protect the female. I have noticed that if I stay in the car to watch the birds and take photographs they don't seem to mind. But if I get out of the car they will swoop down as if planning to attack. Human disturbance is detrimental to the eggs and the newborn chicks so I stay in the car. Rockport Beach actually closes access to the nesting area around July 1 to deter people from getting too close.

Growing up
Photo by Jeanette Larson
Like clockwork, after about 21 days the babies hatch. Although I can't be positive, it looks like most nests end up with two chicks hatching. They continue to be cared for by both parents for another 3 to 4 weeks. The most distinctive feature on Black Skimmers is their mandible. Orange and black, the lower part of the bill is longer than the upper, allowing the bird to skim the water for food. Babies are born with beaks of equal length. Within a few weeks you can see the lower mandible start to lengthen and change colors.

Photo by Cheryl Vance-Kiser
Used with Permission
As the chicks fledge, the colony moves closer to the water. By the end of July, the chicks are almost full grown, their colors are changing and they are testing their wings. The chicks are also learning to fish for themselves. Parents will still feed them if needed and sometimes the chicks literally fall flat on their faces after the strenuous experience.

Winging it
Photo by Jeanette Larson
The experts say this was a pretty good year for skimmers with many chicks hatching. Black skimmers were once hunted nearly to extinction but are now categorized as "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species but some years are better than others for the colonies. Once a colony is established the skimmers return year after year. While they breed in many areas along the Atlantic coast, they are on the Texas coast year-round. So I'm looking forward to watching the cycle again next year.

Other interesting things about the black skimmer: their legs are short with webbed feet. While they will wade into the water they don't swim or dive. They skim along the surface with the upper mandible held above the water. Their eyes, which in adults disappear into the black coloring, constrict to a narrow vertical slit. They are they only birds with this trait, which may be an adaptation against the bright glare of water and sand.

Literary tie-ins: In Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling, Minn, a turtle observes skimmers along with many other birds on a trip down the Mississippi. This classic by the author/illustrator of Paddle to the Sea and Seabird received a Newbery Honor award in 1952 and is a wonderful introduction to the ecology of the Mississippi for readers of any age.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A New Nest

I haven't blogged in almost two months but I think I had a good reason. Jim and I decided to move permanently to the house in Rockport so I've been cleaning the "nest" in Pflugerville, packing up stuff, and getting the house sold. I hadn't really thought of our life changes in bird terms until my dear friend Michael J. Rosen, author of The Cuckoo's Haiku: and Other Birding Poems, sent a haiku and a photograph of a hummingbird's nest to me as a moving gift. So yes, I guess we were abandoning our old nest and "building" a new one.

Black Skimmer Egg
It's a great time to be moving to Rockport as it is nesting season on the coast and it's fascinating to watch the birds mating, nesting, and raising their young. The gulls and skimmers are nesting on Rockport Beach. The nests are scraped into the dirt and sand in several protected areas. It's quite a challenge to spot the eggs and the parents are very protective. Although I've yet to actually see a chick hatch, I am starting to see them fledge and the chicks are adorable.

Black Skimmer nesting
Skimmer chicks
Black skimmers have distinctive red and black bills that look a bit like candy corn to me (or I guess more accurately what is called autumn mix since those are black, orange, and white). The lower mandible is longer than the upper, allowing the bird to drag its mouth through the water skimming up small fish. There may be as many as four eggs in a clutch. At birth the mandibles are the same length (look closely at the chicks), but start to show differences by four weeks. The parents feed the chicks until they are about four weeks old and can skim their own food. This is the only American skimmer; the other two species are African and Indian. Although the skimmers are migratory they stay in Rockport year-round.

Laughing Gull Chicks
The laughing gulls are very abundant but I never tire of watching them. Rarely do I go out to take photographs without getting a few of the gulls doing silly things. They always look so clean and graceful!

Laughing gull
The laughing gulls nests will often be mixed in areas with or near the skimmers. The gulls are monogamous, often staying together through several breeding seasons. Each clutch may have one to four eggs. Both male and female gulls incubate the eggs for about 30 days.The gull chicks will go through several molts, changing from light brown feathers to the more familiar white head and gray back.

It appears that some of the gulls stand guard around the edges of the
protected nesting area to warn of intruders.  I find this kind of ironic as laughing gulls sometimes sneak up and steal skimmer eggs. We joke that every post has a gull because they do seem to love standing on the signs and posts around the nesting area.

After the egg hatches, gulls clean out their nests to prevent shell pieces from attaching to other eggs, preventing hatching. Seems like we all need to clean house and build a new nest once in awhile!