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 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 The 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 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, for good measure.

Books about Vietnam (part I)

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, starting with 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.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Birding and Birders: A Few Books (part I)

Speaking of lists, here's one of books about birders and birdwatching that I think I'll try to pick up when I get home:

Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, by Scott Widensaul
The evolution of an eccentric hobby into a popular pastime, including biographies of key luminaries.

Birding on Borrowed Time, by Phoebe Snetsinger
The memoir of a woman who, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis in 1981 at age 49, set off to see as many birds as she could before she died. She ended up living 17 more years and became the first person to see more than 8,000 species.

Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile
A biography of Phoebe Snetsinger.

John James Audubon: The Making of an American, by Richard Rhodes
The man, the myth, the legend.

Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, by Elizabeth Rosenthal
The author of landmark field guides, Peterson helped to make birding what it is today.

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik
The story of three men vying to see the most North American birds in a year. It's a very entertaining book, and movie too.

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, A Son, and a Lifelong Obsession, by Dan Koeppel
As told by the son of a man who traveled to sixty countries in his pursuit of "every bird on earth."

Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder, by Kenn Kaufman
A memoir chronicling a sixteen-year-old's big year in the 1970s, considered a classic in the birding literature by someone who is now revered as one of America's top birders.

Lost among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year, by Neil Hayward
At age 39, having quit his high-paying job and being on the other side of a failed relationship, Hayward, almost on a lark, decided to try for a big year in 2013.

Birding without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World, by Noah Stryker
Traveling to 41 countries in 2015 with a backpack and binoculars, Stryker became the first person to see more than half the world's ten thousand birds in a single year.

Birding Vietnam (part I)

I am not a birder. But last autumn when I missed the date for signing up for a Sierra Club trip to Vietnam—a place that for some unknown reason I decided I really had to visit—I needed to find an alternate avenue into the country. I've long admired Frans de Waal's Facebook posts of various and sundry fauna, including some spectacular images of Southeast Asian birds. I thought, okay, I'll go bird watching in Vietnam! That'll be fun! So I googled. And up popped a company called, promisingly enough, Wings. It just so happened they had one spot free for a trip in March. I applied.

And so now, here I am in Vietnam, three days into a three-week trip. We are currently at Cuc Pheong National Park, a hundred or so miles south of Hanoi. We've spent two days birding.

Turns out, Vietnam is one of the more challenging countries to bird in. It seems that centuries of local people roasting birds on skewers or sticking them in cages to enjoy their melodious song has made the local avian population a tad skittish. And the chaos of dark jungles doesn't help the viewing.

So we've spent long moments trying to lure birds out into the open, by playing their calls out to them. Birds such as the bar-bellied pitta (Hydrornis elliottii), which looks like this:

Its sounds can be heard here. Although this lovely little bird called back to us, it did not reveal itself.

Here's another, the scaly-breasted partridge (Arborophila chloropus)—which, same outcome:

Here's its call.

And there's the red-headed trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus):

Beautiful, no? I caught just a glimpse of its red breast hidden behind a branch in the (did I mention this already?) dark jungle foliage. It's really difficult for me to "count" this as a sighting. But I saw more than most of the folks in my group. Here's its call.

I've been quizzing my ten fellow travelers about their "life lists." Dixie is, I believe, the most accomplished, with some 5,500 bird species under her belt. (As one fellow pointed out, she must be in the top ten of women life listers in the United States.) Everyone in the group has some sort of a life list, most in the several thousands. One woman has been on sixty (sixty!) birding trips. These people have some serious time and money, it seems. And a real passion: to see as many birds as possible. Whatever that really means.

Me, I saw several birds today very well, either through my "bins" or through the spotting scope that our local sub-leader, Luan, carries after us. A whole lot of birds I "sort of" saw—flitting around in the greenery. Many we only heard.

Before my trip, I'd joke to friends that I was going on a three-week walking meditation. That is not far off the mark. We walk very slowly, scanning for birdsong and movement. And when someone spots something interesting, we may stand in one place for fifteen, twenty minutes staring into the forest, watching, watching—sometimes with ultimate victory, sometimes not. It's up to the birds.

Today, I simply enjoyed being here, in Vietnam, in the jungle, enjoying this beautiful, delicate, and fairly endangered spot on the planet. And whenever I managed to capture a bird really well in my binoculars and study it: I was in a momentary state of bird bliss. It's not a bad place to be.

And no, I have no intention of starting a life list. I may love lists, but that sort of a birder I will never be.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Report: Manhattan Beach

2. Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach (3/12/18)

My glacial reading pace continues, but I hope to shake that up and accomplish my goal of fifty books this year. Now that I'm semi-retired (i.e., finally coming to my senses?).

I picked up Manhattan Beach having greatly enjoyed Jennifer Egan's last book, A Visit from the Good Squad—and as various other reviewers experienced, I found myself puzzled by the difference between the two books but also, equally, impressed by the stylish, elegant, versatile prose. And oh my, the research, which was exhaustive (if at times also exhausting). I learned about all sorts of things: industrial diving, civilian life in WWII New York, gangsterism, the merchant marine and surviving a shipwreck, caring for an invalid, the posh ways of the upper class, and much much more.

I also enjoyed the complexity of the characters, as well as of the plot, which involves the protagonist, Anna, whose father disappears when she's young. As she reaches adulthood, she gains employment in the war effort, ultimately becoming one of the first female divers, working to repair ships. The book is difficult to summarize because it's not especially plot driven, and the timeline and POV switch up frequently.

As a result, it took me until about halfway in to really feel engaged. It's a slow-moving story, with a lot of interiority. That's not a bad thing at all, but I needed to slow into it myself. I was frequently on the verge of quitting in order to take up a fast-paced mystery, but the beauty of the writing kept me going.

Here are a couple of passages I flagged as I went, but really every page has some gem or other:
Anna laughed. In fact, her dress—hidden under her coat—was not all that bad. When she'd told her mother that a girlfriend from the Naval Yard had invited her to the pictures but presumed her clothes would be dreadful, her mother had plunged into a frenzy of outraged alteration, adding shoulder pads and a peplum to a plain blue dress Anna had bought at S. Klein for Lydia's upcoming doctor visit. At the same time Anna had stitched a spray of turquoise beads onto the collar, hands flying alongside her mother's as if they were playing a duet. No one who really knew clothes would be fooled by these enhancements, but their sewing wasn't meant for scrutiny. As Pearl Gratzky liked to say, rather grandly, "We work in the realm of the impression."
*   *   *   *
After midnight, when Eddied was relieved by Farmingdale . . . , he found Wyckoff, the naval ensign, waiting outside his stateroom with a bottle of wine. "We'll drink it outdoors," he said. "It's a perfect night. Where you drink wine matters as much as the wine itself."
  They sat on the number two hatch cover. The night was cool and clear, a rolling sea just visible under a paring of moon. Eddie couldn't see the ships around them, but he perceived their density, five hundred feet away fore and aft, a thousand feet abeam, all nosing together through the swells like a spectral herd. Eddie heard the cork leaving Wyckoff's bottle, caught a tart, woody smell of the wine. The ensign poured a modest amount into two enameled cups. "Don't drink it yet," he cautioned as Eddie lifted his. "Let it breathe."
  The Southern Cross hung near the horizon. Eddie preferred the southern sky; it was brighter, denser with planets.
  "All right. Now," Wyckoff said after several minutes. "Take a sip and move it around your mouth before you swallow."
  It sounded loopy, but Eddie did as instructed. At first there was just the ashy pucker he'd always disliked in wine, but that flavor yielded to an appealing overripeness, even a suggestion of decay. "Better," he said with surprise.
  They drank and looked at the stars. After the war, Wyckoff said, he hoped to find a job planing grapes in the valleys north of San Francisco. There had been vineyards there, but the dry agents had burned them during Prohibition.
  "What about you, Third?" he asked. "What will you do after the war?"
  Eddie knew what he wanted to say, but waited several moments to be sure. "I'll go back home to New York," he said. "I've a daughter there."
  "What's her name?"
  These syllables, which Eddie hadn't uttered aloud in years, seemed to crash together like a pair of cymbals, leaving behind a ringing echo. Abashed, he looked away. But as the seconds passed without reaction from Wyckoff, Eddie realized how unremarkable his disclosure was. Nowadays, most men on ships had left other lives behind. The war had made him ordinary.

Monday, March 5, 2018


Today we went to hear a wonderful concert by the local choral group Camerata Singers. Their showcase piece was Beatitude Mass (for the Homeless), by Henry Mollicone. Here's a video of a performance from a few years ago:

Before the concert, information was projected on the front wall about a local project called Gathering for Women. The proceeds of the concert were to go to this group, which helps homeless women specifically, and to a Salinas organization, Dorothy's Place, that provides food and a generally safe environment for homeless with their own makeshift shelters. Five hundred people attended the two concerts. I hope many thousands of dollars were raised.

Unfortunately, I did not take notes on the statistics that were displayed on the wall, but the upshot is, there are a couple thousand homeless women on the Monterey Peninsula alone, half of whom are over fifty years of age, mostly living out of their vehicles. And yet they are basically invisible.

A couple of weeks ago, I was following up with Red Cross (I'm a caseworker for the Disaster Action Team, which mostly means house fires) on a 43-year-old non-citizen with two adolescent US-born children. They had lost their home to fire and were bouncing from friend to shelter to I'm not sure where. I made a lot of calls trying to find information, and it was mind-boggling how uncentralized everything was.

What if you really needed help? Shouldn't there be one place you could go?

Every year now from November to May, there is a shelter in Salinas that people without a place to stay can seek out, no questions asked, at 111 W. Alisal. County Supervisor Jane Parker has gained permission for homeless people with vehicles to park outside her office overnight (they used to park along a rural road, but that was getting out of hand). There are moving shelters sponsored by churches, though I am not finding a website that describes this program. There is Monterey Shelter Directory: Helping the Needy of America. There is the Coalition of Homeless Services Providers. There is the Salvation Army. San Benito County apparently has an awesome new shelter, with permanent housing being arranged in 1 of 3 cases—but that doesn't help my client, whose kids are in school in Salinas.

I am on the verge of traveling throughout this county, to the various places I've mentioned here, to the churches, to the homeless shelters, to the food banks, to the thrift stores, to try to find out just what this county actually offers in the way of food and shelter for people in need. Because I sure am not finding that information online. And I don't even need it. But people I represent and care about do. And I'd like to be able to give them some useful information.

You'd think homelessness would be better addressed. It's all around us. And . . . it doesn't need to be. No it doesn't.