Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘birding’

Birds and The Art of Living

In Nature, Photography, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 5, 2020 at 9:00 am

Great Blue Heron ©Doug Bruns

I took a long pleasant walk along the water on New Years Day. Walking seems the most basic and perhaps profound thing to do as an upright animal and I like to begin the year doing something basic and important. A walk gets everything in order, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem too busy to get out and simply walk, or they think their time could somehow be better spent. It is not a surprise to me that a study of human creativity is a long history of walkers. (If you want to know more about my thoughts along on this line, read my essay, The Philosophy of Walking, at Medium.)

Long-billed Curlew ©Doug Bruns

I took binoculars with me on my walk. Wearing them, like wearing a camera around my neck, is a prompt to pay attention, to be on the look out, to be present in a moment, alert and ready. I identified twenty-two species of birds on my two-hour walk. There were probably another dozen or so that I could not identify. I am a long-time birder, but not a very good one, though I am always striving to improve.

Birding gives me an excuse and purpose to be out of doors. Fly fishing used to do the same thing, but the harm I was doing to the beautiful finned creatures of moving water became too much to bear. I most often go birding with my camera and a big telephoto lens. Photographing a bird I cannot identify in the field gives me an opportunity to study it on my computer screen when I get home.

Vermillion Flycatcher ©Doug Bruns

I want to be a better birder and am committed to sharpening my skills. I want to be a better human being and am likewise committed. I see the two notions as complimentary. Anything that draws you closer to nature, that heightens your attention to the world around you, I believe, simply makes you better. The more you appreciate the natural world, the more inclined you’ll be to cherish it, the creatures in it (human, as well as non-human beings) and do no damage.

Maria Popova in a recent Brain Pickings post made a comment about the creative process, which included the phrase, “…the way artists apprentice themselves to the work.” I very much like the use of the word apprentice as a verb, an active verb. The practice of learning a trade or a skill through an apprenticeship has sadly grown quaint. The idea of taking time to study under a master, to absorb carefully and with commitment, does not have much traction any longer. The Latin from which the word apprentice is drawn means “to learn, to take hold of, to grasp.” I attempt to learn, to take hold of, to grasp by birding with good birders and naturalists at every opportunity.

Brown Pelican ©Doug Bruns

If there is any art in my life I wish to apprentice myself to it and commit to the work involved in enhancing it. How best to live, in my scheme of things, is art of the highest order. How to be a better birder is largely the art of learning how to better pay attention, which is also one aspect of learning how best to live. As an apprentice to this art I am yoked to the idea that progress can be made, that there is knowledge to be grasped, wisdom to be exercised.

There is work to be done and I am committed to the long-haul of getting it done. Work is a wonderful thing. Without it we have no opportunity to practice our apprenticeship, no platform upon which to design and structure our path forward.

These are thoughts I considered during my New Years walk. They give me a heightened sense of purpose. There have been times in my life when true purpose seemed remote and now it appears less so. I am grateful for that. Gratitude too, I’ve learned, is part of the art of learning how best to live.

Happy New Year.

The action of no action.

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Travel, Uncategorized, Wisdom on February 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

We’d been camping in the Laguna Mountains for a few days and had the place to ourselves. We had no internet and no cell coverage. Our days were lazy and we filled them with books, walks, and the occasional nap. Breaking the habit of connectivity is difficult and a thing probably best experienced only when forced on you. Like many habits, it takes time to break the back of it but is worth it if you can manage. I spent a good bit of time photographing the Acorn Woodpecker. Sibley says to “Note clownish face pattern, red crown…” and so on. Clownish indeed, with a bold yellow cheek, a bright eye ring, and a white forehead patch. They were in abundance in the field in front of us, a field of less than a dozen trees, half of which were dead.

I took a biology class in college, the final project of which was to write a report of long-term observation on a patch of ground we’d chosen, a spit of earth three feet square. We had to log so many hours–I don’t recall exactly how many–and share what we observed. The project taught me many things, all of them unexpected, the greatest of which was the power of simply being still. Being still is not a thing we often experience, nor does it warrant much currency in modern society. Yet the simple action of no action can be quite something, boarding on profound even.

There was perhaps an hour before the sun would set behind the ridge. (A fist held to the horizon represents about an hour, two fists between horizon and the sun and you’re looking at about two hours before sunset.) Once the sun disappeared the temperatures dropped and darkness spread across the valley faster than you could out walk it–at lease it seemed that way. I had been standing for perhaps an hour, not moving. I focused on the birds and attempted to better hear the sounds surrounding me. I concentrated on simply being still and observing. Once years ago while meditating in a woods, seated on a stump, a white-tail deer approached, sniffing the air curiously, nostrils flaring. Closer and closer she drew, then, with a shift of wind, she leaped as if suddenly released by gravity and bolted off across a meadow. When you sit in a forest things happen. On this afternoon, camera resting on my tripod in front of me, my hearing turned ever so effortlessly into listening. It is a subtle difference, hearing and listening, and I cannot say when it directly turned. You can’t really pinpoint such a thing. There was a chirping in the tree in front of me. It had been there but I’d not listened to it. I lifted my eyes and from a bore-hole the head of a fledgling appeared. It looked around, up and down, then hopped from the hole to a branch. Suddenly mom and dad woodpecker dropped from the sky screaming. They reprimanded the youngster and ushered him back into the nest. I could only imagine the discussion over dinner that night.

Despite my well documented appreciation of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists, I have never been able to truly nurture an appreciation for things metaphysical, spiritual, or transcendental. Yet, as I grow older and as my stubbornness yields to experience, I find peace in considering such things. There is no conclusion to draw from that, other than the lesson of stillness and the woodpecker.

 

Once upon an oven bird.

In Life, Nature, The Examined Life, Writing on July 13, 2012 at 6:00 am

The wood thrush.

Some days are better than others. I’ve had a run of less-better days recently and this morning I woke up at 3:30 to give this situation further consideration. I came to no conclusion. Getting up mid-morning in contemplation of troubles and distractions sets the course for the day. Surely it will be another day of troubles and distractions. And so it goes.

For me, the best remedy is to get outdoors. The American thinker and scientist Jared Diamond speculates that perhaps the worst fate to befall Homo sapiens was the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. His theory hinges on what followed–land accumulation, individual wealth, social status. Everything changed, and not entirely for the good. It is not a stretch to consider that likewise came a transition to sleeping indoors. Although I don’t believe Diamond considers waking up under roof in the same context, it is obvious to me that getting to open sky as soon as possible upon waking is key to a clear head. It is, I believe, how we are wired. Troubles become trapped in four walls that  are blow afar in open air.

Thursday is nature-walk day at the local Audubon center. For two hours every Thursday morning one can stroll with a naturalist and spend time breathing fresh air. We start at 7:00 am. Getting there on time is not an issue if you’re awake at three-thirty.

This morning we identified twenty-four bird species. We also identified a handful of wild flowers. I don’t know anything about wildflowers, so I took some notes, snapped some photos, and will attempt to impress that information on my struggling gray matter. This time of year most birding is done by ear. I’ve spent considerable time attempting to learn bird song. A simple mnemonic device sometimes helps. For instance, the red-eyed Vireo has a call that can be remembered as: Here I am, where are you? Look up here. At the top. The little oven bird screams, teacher, teacher, teacher.  You don’t need a  trick to remember the call of the wood thrush. It is one of the most beautiful sounds in nature. Of the wood thrush’s song, Thoreau wrote,

“Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.”

The call of the loon is another sound that is deeply evocative. There are things left best unsaid, and the call of the loon does not translate to the nasty roughness of the written word. That is the matter of poetry, of which the loon is master.

And of my troubles and distractions with which my day began? …What trouble? What distraction?

The eagle and the hawk.

In Curiosity, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on July 2, 2012 at 6:00 am

A battle worthy of the Red Baron.

I observed a battle overhead yesterday. It was worthy of the Red Baron. A red-tail hawk was attempting to shoo a bald eagle from a patch of sky it deemed proprietary. The eagle wasn’t terribly phased, even as it was being attacked by the largest of the hawks.

From above the hawk watched the eagle. The eagle watched the ground. This would go on a minute or two, then the hawk would draw its wings slightly and drop on the eagle, who, waiting until the last moment, would flip sideways and defend itself with its talons. I watched through my field glasses for five minutes or more. Finally, the two drifted over the tree horizon, still tangling. I can only assume they continued the aerial ballet beyond my view. Who was established as top of the food chain for that specific parcel of blue sky is unknown–but I would put my money on the eagle.

The battle was entertaining and interesting and underscored something I have been thinking about recently. Specifically, I’ve been considering how a thinking person views the world. In my absurdly reductionist scheme of things, one looks at the world predominately in one of four ways:

  • As an artist, who interprets
  • As a journalist, who explains
  • As a scientist, who understands
  • As a philosopher, who questions

I am assuming one is a thinking person. There are throngs who never give consideration to this stuff, who simply exist. (I envy those lucky simple souls.) Too, I recognize the overlapping nature inherent in this scheme. The universe drops us a gift when it delivers a genius lifting heavy weight in multiple categories. (DaVinci comes to mind.)

Of the eagle and the hawk? How did this link come to be? I have lived in the world of interpretation (the artist), and participated as one of those wishing to explain (the journalist), and I have questioned (the philosopher)–but I have understood very little. Above me, on the wing, simple biology played out, but I understood very little of it.

A like-minded friend recently began reading E.O. Wilson‘s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. He sent me this quote:

“Moreover, we look in vain to philosophy for the answer to the great riddle. Despite its noble purpose and history, pure philosophy long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence. The question itself is a reputation killer. It has become a Gorgon for philosophers, upon whose visage even the best thinkers fear to gaze. They have good reason for their aversion. Most of the history of philosophy consists of failed models of the mind.”
My needs grow simpler as I grow older. I require less interpretation, less explanation, tolerate fewer questions. Understanding is what I seek.
Thanks for reading.

“…to adopt another life.”

In Dogs, Life, Memoir, Nature, Travel on March 4, 2012 at 6:42 am

The classroom did not particularly work for me. I found sitting in the lecture hall difficult; and reading the books I was told to read, rather than the ones I wanted to read, was annoying. I’m stubborn that way. So it was that an autodidact was born.

Books have been my ideal teachers, as has travel and nature. I’ve attended many classes by these professors and never grow weary of them. The last lecture is, I hope, many lessons away. My syllabus is inconclusive on this matter.

One of my past favorite classrooms found me standing in moving water, chasing trout. In his great poem, The Theory and Practice of Rivers, Jim Harrison writes, “to study rivers, including the postcard / waterfalls, is to adopt another life.” I love the phrase, “adopt another life,” as if there were lives awaiting us, looking at us through kennel wire–not rescue dogs, but rescue lives.

Trout live in beautiful places and that’s as good an excuse as any to pursue them. I don’t know if it was the fishing so much, or rather the opportunity to be outdoors that fueled my obsession; to study the water, to determine the correct fly and pay attention to the natural clues which make for good fishing–these are compelling motivations.

I had a tradition through this period of beginning the year–literally New Year’s Day–fishing. It was more symbolism than anything and made for a short day on the water. If you’re fishing for trout on New Year’s Day in North America you will be cold.

One New Year’s I fished the Youghiogheny River. The Yough (pronounced YOCK) winds north along the Appalachian plateau through West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. It is one of the nation’s first recognized “scenic wild rivers” and is protected. The Yough freezes in winter, except for a few spots where the water falls quickly through rapids. On this particular New Year’s Day, layered, bundled and protected, I entered the river where it turned fast on itself then broke over a boulder field. There was no ice at this spot and soon I caught a beautiful little brook trout. Brookies are exquisite fish, with speckles and subtile flashes of color. They are evidence of Thoreau’s remark that, “There are little strains of poetry in our animals.” The fish fought hard and when I brought it to hand I slipped the hook from it’s lip without removing it from the water. It remained suspended at my knees, it’s gills pumping like crimson bellows. I stared, observing. I instantaneously realized that the fish was doing everything in it’s nature to survive the winter. That it needed to conserve energy. That my fly had been interpreted as a rare meal. That our fight had exhausted it. That I had in some fashion, betrayed it. Slowly the fish recovered then drifted away.

My heart for fishing left me that day.

Over the years, as the passion for fishing waned, an interest in birding arose. Where one activity presents a classic battle with nature, the other is an invitation to lay aside weapons and peacefully observe. Such is the changing classroom.

Every morning, I pick up my field glasses and walk my dog, Lucy. Our routine consists of a one mile loop. The trail cuts though a woods and circles a small field. It is a beautiful walk and sometimes I look so forward to it that it is my last thought upon going to sleep.

Lucy relishes our walks and spends most of her time staring up trees. I carry my binoculars and stare up trees too, looking for birds. This morning, there being a lot of snow, we shared the loop with two gliding cross-country skiers. Another dog walker stopped momentarily, as our dogs made their introductions. “See any interesting birds?” he asked. I replied that yesterday I spotted the first red-winged black birds of the season. I told him that I’ve also seen cardinals and robins this week, a sign that winter is losing it’s grip. I made a sweeping motion and announced, “This is my classroom.” I lifted my binoculars, saying, “these are a reminder to pay attention.” He smiled and from the look in his eye I believe he understood. Or perhaps he just thought me daft.