Monday, April 16, 2018

Birding Vietnam (part V)

Better finish this accounting while these birds are still somewhat fresh in my mind. Other amazing specimens we saw include a couple of woodpeckers:

Speckled Piculet (Picumnus innominatus). Photo by hydroscwan
Black-and-buff Woodpecker (Meiglyptes jugularis).
Photo by Mark van Beirs

And then we got into some colorful birds, including broadbills, minivets (in the cuckoo-shrike family), shrike-babblers (aka Vireo allies), orioles, and monarch flycatchers—beautiful all:

Black-and-red Broadbill (Cimbirhynchus mnacrorhynchos).
Photo by Phil Liew
Long-tailed Broadbill (Psarisomus dalhousiae).
Photo from
Male Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) (the female is
bright yellow and gray, also very pretty). Photo by James Eaton
Blyth's Shrike-babbler (Pteruthius aeralatus). Photo by uzair ar
Maroon Oriole (Oriolus traillii). Photo by Craig Brelsford
Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi).
Photo from

One of the more spectacular sights of the trip involved a greater racket-tailed drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) hectoring a great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) over the jungle of Cat Tien National Park. Imagine our surprise when, later that day, a couple of our party, leader Susan and Matt, stopped in at a park lodge simply to check out the accommodations and spied the very same scene in a painting on a room wall! This event must happen frequently. I was so glad Matt shared the picture with me—good ol' AirDrop.

Here's a greater racket-tailed drongo more lifelike; seeing one always made me happy:

Photo by Nitin Srinivasamurthy

I'll leave you with two more birds for now (there will be a part VI, it seems, when we will venture into the land of fulvettas, yuhinas, and sunbirds, oh my!).

Sultan Tit (Melanochlora sultanea).
Yellow-billed Nuthatch (Sitta solangiae). Photo by Craig Brelsford

There's nothing like a nuthatch to fill me with cheer—I could say, the more colorful the better, but even our drab West Coast white-breasted nuthatches are delightful as they scamper up and down trees, searching for insect prey. They're determined little clowns, defying gravity all the way.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Birding Vietnam (part IV)

And on  my list, we move on to the babblers, bulbuls, and barbets. (Okay, I'm skipping a few, for the sake of alliteration. I'll get back to those in part V.)

Babblers! They are not found in the New World (unless introduced): they show up on Wikipedia specifically as the "Old World babblers," or Timaliidae, a family of passerine (or perching: three toes forward, one back) birds, the largest order (Passeriformes), with 5,100 species (out of 9–10,000 species in the world total). As for the babblers specifically: 53 species, in nine genera. We saw the puff-throated, Abbott's, buff-breasted, scaly-crowned, and golden babblers, the pin-striped tit-babbler, and the limestone wren-babbler, and heard a few others. They are diverse in size and coloration (though most are rather drab), and tend to be characterized by soft fluffy plumage.

Scaly-crowned Babbler (Malacopteron cinereum). Photo by Daniel Koh
The Vietnamese Cutia (Cutia legalleni) is a babbler too:
it was one of the final birds of our trip, and greatly gratifying:
a lovely little thing. Photo by Allan Lewis
Bulbuls (family Pycnonotidae) are also passerines, with 150 species in 26 genera; also only Old World, through Africa and Asia. Species we saw included the black-headed, black-crested, light-vented, sooty-headed, red-whiskered, streak-eared, puff-throated, stripe-throated, flavescent, ashy, mountain, black, and chestnut. I marked many of these with an asterisk. Here are the three I flagged with exclamation marks or circles on my checklist—meaning, I got a good look and they filled me with delight. (The first entry below is an hour-long video of a red-whiskered bulbul singing—I think it's meant as a meditation aid. Though that said, we saw plenty of red-whiskered bulbuls in cages on the streets of Da Lat, enjoyed for their song. The poaching of wild birds, whether for food or their music, is a big problem still in Vietnam.)

Stripe-throated Bulbul (Picnonolus finlaysoni). Photo by Tom Backlund
Chestnut Bulbul (Hemixos castanonolus). Photo by Marcos Wei
And finally, there are the beautiful barbets, who are listed in my check list as Capitonidae, but a glance at Wikipedia suggests that the barbets have been divided into various geographical groups, such that my Vietnamese Asian barbets can proudly call themselves part of the Megalaimidae (meaning "large throat") family. (This bird taxonomy business is exhausting. So many of the birds we saw on our trip had, Susan explained over and over again, been "split" from a previous designation, based on some minor attribute: a different song, a longer tail, a chin stripe, an eye ring, etc. My feeling is, you could just keep splitting all of us until you get to the individual. Don't there have to be some reasonable limits? Ah, but that's a question for another post.)

Here are a few of the barbets we enjoyed watching through our binoculars or hearing from a distance in the shady forest:

Lineated Barbet (Megalaima lineata). Photo by Subharanjan Sen
Golden-throated Barbet (Megalaima franklinii). Photo by Lawrence Neo
Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala)
Susan talked about the onomatopoeic qualities of the barbets' calls—which, by the way, are sung with a closed beak: it's like Tuvan throat singing, only much more melodious. Here's what some of them say, when translated into English:

Yellow-crowned Barbet: Someone took my bra! Someone took my bra!
Indochinese Barbet: Big fat buddha . . . big fat buddha . . .
Coppersmith Barbet: tink . . tink . . tink . . tink (like a metalworker working metal)
Blue-eared Barbet: a Coppersmith on amphetamines
Bornean Barbet: on a double dose of amphetamines
Red-vented Barbet: on pot, "doot . . . doot . . . doot . . ."
Necklaced Barbet: wow! wow! wow! wow!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book Report: The Fiddler in the Subway

3. Gene Weingarten, The Fiddler in the Subway (4/10/18)

This collection of twenty feature stories by Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten is varied and interesting, with sometimes quirky subjects ranging from a flawed children's party clown to Bill Clinton's father; the contract author of the Hardy Boys mysteries to a visit to the "armpit of America," Battle Mountain, Nevada; a reunion with a girl Weingarten had a crush on at the tender age of twelve to Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau's treatment of the Iraq war; people who don't vote to Woodrow Wilson's perhaps mistress.

Weingarten specializes in humor, but I was especially struck by his more serious pieces, two of which, in 2008 and 2010, respectively, won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing—one, the title essay, about "a world-class violinist [Joshua Bell] who, as an experiment, played beautiful music in a subway station filled with unheeding commuters," and the second, "Fatal Distraction," "a haunting story about parents, from varying walks of life, who accidentally kill their children by forgetting them in cars" (quoting from the Pulitzer website). I found "Fear Itself," about riding a bus in Jerusalem that fifteen years ago was frequently the target of suicide bombers, of special interest because of my own visit to Israel last year, though the situation is less fraught now than it was when he wrote the piece. Plus, fear fascinates me.

The writing is good journalism, sometimes involving research, generally including candid conversations with his interview subjects, and always with a strong dose of Weingarten himself as a participant observer. Here, for example, is how he ends "Fear Itself":
Just before I left on this trip, my friend Laura gave me a $5 bill. Laura is a journalist, an expert in affairs of the Middle East, and the daughter of a rabbi. The bill, she told me, was "mitzvah money." When someone is heading off on a possibly dangerous journey, it is a Jewish custom to give him money to give to a beggar at his destination. That turns the journey into a good deed. With luck, God will protect you.
  The bill is still in my wallet; I'd completely forgotten about it. At first, I felt ashamed. But sometimes, when you focus too intently on your own situation, you miss the big picture. I'm going outside, right now, to give the five bucks to the first homeless person I see. It's all the same world, you know.
If you're interested in reading "The Fiddler in the Subway," it can be found here. You can also watch part of Bell's performance below. It was a provocative experiment. I like to think I would have stopped to listen . . .

Monday, April 9, 2018

Birding Vietnam (part III)

And so my birding tour of Vietnam has come to an end. I brought home just a few souvenirs: a pair of lounging pants, super comfy; a shirt for David featuring pineapples, XXL (he actually wears a M, but sizes are relative); a pair of green peacock feathers; a tube of Korean chili paste from the airplane; and, perhaps the most important, my completed Field Checklist.

Pretty much every evening for the past three weeks, fifteen minutes before dinner, the ten of us would gather in the dining room or bar and go through the 18 pages of the checklist, reviewing the day's birds. I used a check mark for birds I'm sure I saw; a dot for ones that other people saw but I didn't (or didn't get a good look at—flitting shadows in the vines don't count); and an H for ones that we—or at least our leader, Susan—heard (which also don't count).

Birds that I got a very good look at or that knocked my socks off with their beauty got a star in the margin. Here are photos of many of those birds, gleaned from the Web. There are too many to cover in one post, so I'll present than a dozen at a time. (As always, click on the images to seem them large on black.)

Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus). Photo by Sasi Smith
Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis). Photo by Ryan Cheng
Malayan Night-Heron (Gorsachius melanolophus).
Photo by Francesco Veronesi
Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela).
Photo by Shahin Olakara

Collared Falconet (Microhierax caerulescens).
Photo by Subhash Chanda
Vernal Hanging Parrot (Loricula vernalis). Photo by Alex Vargas
Asian Barred Owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides).
Photo by Prasanna Kumar Mamidala
Orange-Breasted Trogon (Harpactes oreskios).
Photo by
Banded Kingfisher (Lacedo pulchella). Photo by Lars Petersson
Blue-bearded Bee-Eater (Nyctyornis athertoni). Photo by Jason Thompson
Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis). Photo by Susan Schermer
Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris). Photo by Eric Bronson

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Birding and Birders: A Few Books (part II)

I will start this list by pointing out an annual column in Forbes of the 12 best books of the year about birds and birding (at least, I've found two years' worth of it, from 2017 and 2016) by GrrlScientist, an excellent science writer whom I follow on Medium. And here's her first such list, from 2014 (in the Guardian). I hope she carries on. These are good lists.

But back to mine. Here are some books not about birders (see list no. 1), but about birds themselves and about how to watch them. Lots of amazing, sometimes funny stories and great insight into our winged fellow creatures.

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman
A worldwide exploration into bird intelligence.

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human, by Noah Strycker
Another examination of the bird brain, with insights into memory, relationships, game theory, and intelligence generally.

The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us about Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future, by Jim Robbins
Birds, Robbins posits, are our most vital connection to nature. They compel us to look to the skies, both literally and metaphorically; draw us out into nature to seek their beauty; and let us experience vicariously what it is like to fly.

One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives, by Bernd Heinrich
Heinrich “looks closely, with his trademark ‘hands-and-knees science’ at its most engaging, [delivering] what can only be called psychological marvels of knowing” (Boston Globe). Any of Heinrich's many books about birds, especially on corvids (such as Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds), are worth reading.

Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell (illustrations)
An in-depth look at these complex creatures and the traits and behaviors we share, including language, delinquency, frolic, passion, wrath, risk taking, and awareness.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology, edited by Irby J. Lovette and John W. Fitzpatrick
Using examples drawn from birds found in every corner of the globe, the Handbook covers all aspects of avian diversity, behavior, ecology, evolution, physiology, and conservation.

Sibley's Birding Basics: How to Identify Birds, Using the Clues in Feathers, Habitats, Behaviors, and Sounds
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior
David Allen Sibley is the author of wonderful field guides to American birds, replete with his own illustrations. His guides to bird identification and bird behavior are perfect complements to the field guides.

Good Birders Don't Wear White: 50 Tips from North America's Top Birders, edited by Lisa A. White
Fifty fun essays from 2007 by the biggest names in birding, on topics ranging from bird snobs to cleaning binoculars, pishing and pelagic birding. There is also a sequel: Good Birders Still Don't Wear White: Passionate Birders Share the Joys of Watching Birds (2017).

Birding Vietnam (part II)

The other day I wrote about how difficult it can be to spot birds here in Vietnam. Today we were in what our leader, Susan, said would be the most difficult place we will encounter: Tam Ðảo, in the mountains north of Hanoi. The reasons we're here are three: the chestnut bulbul (Hemixos castanonotus), the short-tailed parrotbill (Paradoxornis davidianus), and the grey laughingthrush (Garrulax maesi). None of these birds are endangered, so they're not "special" in the sense of being rare. But they can be reclusive, and this is the only place we will have a chance to see them. So we were hopeful.

We spent the morning along a track in Tam Ðảo National Park, peering down into steep jungle or up into dense foliage, listening for calls and songs. It was a slow business. We saw some birds, but not many: they were skittish and shy.

Our first victory came with the chestnut bulbul, which even I got a very good look at. I say "even I" because, as a rank amateur, I am clumsy and slow when it comes to seeing the bird with my naked eye, then raising my binoculars to the right spot, and finally focusing. Usually by the time I've started to raise my binoculars, the bird has flitted. Even if I get to the focusing part, I often can't see the bird well enough to know what to focus on. It's a tad frustrating. But I shall keep practicing. In any case, I did feel a flush of pride at spotting that pretty bird. One down!

Later on, the whole group except Gill and me got a good look at a parrotbill. Darn it. Not that I'm working on a life list, so really, if I miss a bird, it's no big deal. But . . . this one was so coveted by my fellow birders, I wanted to see it too.

We saw some other good birds along the way, though, like

Black-chinned Yuhina (Yuhina negrimenta)
Blyth's Shrike-Babbler (Pteruthius aeralatus)
Golden Babbler (Stachyris chrysea)
Silver-eared Mesia (Leiothrix argentauris)

In the afternoon, we headed by foot out from our hotel and up the hill behind—up what could have amounted to 1,200 or more steps, but fortunately, only a few hundred steps in, Susan shouted, "There! It's the grey laughingthrush!" and started bounding up the stairs. As we dashed after her, we became aware of a merry giggling and chortling ahead of us: these birds certainly live up to their name. They seemed so full of mirth that I couldn't help but feel happy! Happy to be finding this bird, sure, but also just happy to be in on this adventure, and to have this fabulous sound as part of it. (You can hear sound clips of their laughter here.)

With that sighting (and hearing) I started to understand why these crazy birders travel hither and yon, far and wide, to find individual species, under sometimes trying conditions. There is something exhilarating about seeking them out, observing their habitat and behavior, and having a moment of communion with these fragile, beautiful creatures.

After that rush, most of us gathered down the stairs and chatted with Michael and Mary, who had stayed behind because Mary's knee wasn't up to the steps, waiting for the last few stragglers—who eventually appeared, saying they'd been observing some parrotbills. Gill and I exclaimed, "Wait, what? Parrotbills? Where?" Luke said he thought they'd flown, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. Susan came along with her bird sounds, and after a few minutes of playing them, lo and behold, who should appear but a couple of parrotbills! The trifecta was accomplished! And with darn good sightings in each case. I'm learning how to use my binocuars!

It was a good day of birding. Each day has been, but somehow today on the trail I was just feeling content, even if I wasn't seeing all the birds. But I saw a lot (including the coveted three), and they were beautiful. The landscape, too, was beautiful. Here are a few shots of that, plus a pretty flower for good measure. (As always—and this goes for the above photos too—click on the image to see it large on black.)

Tam Ðảo means the Three Sisters: this is why

Books about Vietnam

When I asked one of our group, a quiet Episcopalian priest from Virginia, whether he'd been to Vietnam before, he said, "Yes. Fifty years ago," and gave me a significant look. Ah, fifty years ago—yes. As it turns out, he isn't reticent about discussing his experiences then, when he was a captain in the infantry based near Pleiku, in the central highlands. He talks about the bombing of Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh Trail; sending troops into the jungles where they immediately became disoriented ("the maps they gave us were worthless"); seeing several thatched houses at once shot through and destroyed. I'm sure he has lots of stories.

Just before I learned this part of his past, we'd been talking about writing—how his wife enjoys journaling and how she encouraged him to bring a journal and write things down. Whether she meant memories from back then or just his experiences now, birding and seeing the country as it is today, I don't know. I wonder if he's doing that. As an essayist myself, I think a braided piece about being in the thick of war as a young man, searching for elusive guerrilla fighters, then walking quietly through jungles in search of elusive birds as an older man, with a life as a priest sandwiched in between, could be killer good.

In any case, the talks I've been having with him on the trail have been interesting, and I look forward to more over the next couple of weeks. They also make it clear to me how very little I know about the Vietnam War. I didn't even know, really, what the Ho Chi Minh Trail was, though of course I'd heard of it. This morning he described how they'd fly over and bomb it, and the next day the women—it was mostly the women—would be out immediately repairing it. And he described all the people, both civilians and Viet Cong, who traveled the trail on bicycles, carrying supplies into the south, masking themselves from view by tying branches to their backs or their loads. After seeing the immense loads that people carry today on their mopeds, and occasionally on bicycles, I have no doubt what a formidable force these people were.

But back to how little I know. I thought I'd compile a list of books about Vietnam and the war, but of course that's already been done, with aplomb, by the New York Times, in concert with Ken Burns's recent 10-part, 18-hour PBS series about the Vietnam War. So I'll just list a few of the titles that are covered in that article, focusing on works of fiction, that I think I might like to read. It seems I'm going to have my reading cut out for me when I get home! (The links below are to New York Times or Kirkus book reviews, from which the quotes also come.)

Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
"Karl Marlantes’s first novel, 'Matterhorn,' is about a company of Marines who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes—a highly decorated Vietnam vet—spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does. Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam—or any war. It’s not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered."

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
"Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light."

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
"Mr. O'Brien strives to get beyond literal descriptions of what these men went through and what they felt. He makes sense of the unreality of the war—makes sense of why he has distorted that unreality even further in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer. In doing all this, he not only crystallizes the Vietnam experience for us, he exposes the nature of all war stories."

Gustav Hasford, The Short-Timers
"A terse spitball of a book, fine and real and terrifying."

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American
A 1958 book about "the so-called educated elite of the [U.S.] diplomatic corps" and their "insensitivity to local language and customs. . . . " Writing in the Book Review, the veteran correspondent Robert Trumbull called it a 'devastating indictment of American policy' and a 'source of insight into the actual, day-by-day byplay of present titanic political struggle for Asia.' " President John F. Kennedy was deeply impressed by the book, which may have been an influence in his creation of the Peace Corps.

If you're more interested in works of nonfiction, I encourage you to visit the New York Times list—it's long and varied. Me, I've just put in an order for David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, which covers how the U.S. got involved in Vietnam, showing how “bureaucratic considerations triumphed over ideological or even common-sense ones.” I also have Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and American in Vietnam and Michael Herr's Dispatches in a box in the garage somewhere. (Have I mentioned elsewhere that it's high time I dealt with those boxes in the garage? It remains true.)