Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ways of Counting Birds

In the early 1990s, a friend recruited me to help him with an annual wetland breeding bird survey run by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. At the time, they had an interesting method that they requested surveyors use for recording the numbers of birds they found at the census sites. It consisted of using a series of dots, lines, and boxes to represent numbers, like this:

The theory was, I guess, that these symbols would reduce transcription errors by either the surveyors themselves or the people at ODOW who would have to take the field data and input it into the state's database. As I recall, after a few years, they sent a note saying that we could abandon the symbol system. I enjoyed the symbol system, though: the little groups of boxes and dots next to Wood Duck or Mallard; the occasional single dot next to Virginia Rail or American Bittern; the excitement of four "10" boxes and one "7" box next to Cattle Egret the year that we had those hanging around for a season. It could be a pain to draw the dots and boxes, though, and I imagine that's why the let that standard fade away.

This is National Audubon Christmas Bird Count season, of course, so a lot of us who compile and participate in the counts are thinking about numbers and the various ways that people give them to us--by computer, on water-stained pieces of paper; on the backs of envelopes; read over the phone; on clearly printed taxonomically correct data sheets. There are lots of numbers and more ways than one to interpret or misinterpret them.

A few years ago, Vic Fazio began the Ohio Winter Bird Atlas project, which is now run by Black Swamp Bird Observatory. The atlas data collection period is concluded and Black Swamp and volunteers are working on writing up the results. This survey had a different protocol than dots, lines and boxes or "pure" numbers. The Ohio Winter Bird Atlas asked that observers provide estimates of most species using "Xs." A single X meant 1 to 9 birds of a given species were seen; XX meant 10 to 99; XXX meant 100 to 999; XXXX meant "thousands" and so on. This project was looking for estimates of abundance. For rarities, a simple numerical count was acceptable: 1 Rufous Hummingbird, rather than "X" Rufous Hummingbird, for example.

I got to thinking about other ways to represent bird numbers as well as ways to provide information about what the birds were doing while they were being counted. I came up with an imaginary and admittedly silly system that combines bird silhouettes a la the end papers from Roger Tory Peterson's field guides with a partially asemic alphabet, if you will.

Here are a few of the "S's."

I imagine they could be combined in different ways to tell stories about the birds observed on a particular day:











This might produce an effect of



Or perhaps just a senseless tangle of

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lesser Black-backed Gull

In Ohio, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are considered "very uncommon migrant[s] and winter resident[s] on Lake Erie; very rare migrant[s] inland," though the species "seems to be gradually increasing," according to the 2008 edition of the Ohio Bird Records Committee Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Ohio. The first Ohio record is from 1977 in Cleveland, and it hasn't not been that many years since the species began its invasion of North America. It will likely become a North American breeder, if it hasn't already done so. This fall I've seen single adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Huron over Thanksgiving weekend and on the Sandusky Bay on December 13. There have been a number of other Ohio reports this fall as well. For some reason, I didn't even bother reporting the birds I found over the past month. Lesser Black-backeds also wander well south of the lake, and there are a number of recent records from Southwestern Ohio. The first Lesser Black-backed Gull I saw was one that Hank Armstrong found one summer at East Fork Lake State Park.

A good and/or lucky birder can sometimes find other unusual, rare, and interesting gulls in the large winter flocks along Lake Erie and occasionally at inland locations. Perhaps there's a Thayer's, Iceland, or Sabine's Gull in this flock, in addition to the Lesser Black-backed? Maybe at least a nice frosty-winged first-cycle Glaucous. ("Click" on the image to get a better view of this flock for closer scrutiny). There don't seem to be any Great Black-backed Gulls here, but one assumes there are a few close by.

(Triptych: Lesser Black-backed Gull)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Christmas Story, Matthew Style

(The Slaughter of the Innocents)

The Gospel of Matthew includes a bloody twist on the Nativity narrative. In Matthew 2, the three wise men, or Magi, find their way to King Herod, who has gotten word that a messiah has been born in Bethlehem. He tries unsuccessfully to trick the wise men into finding the Christ Child for him so that he can kill the baby. Instead, the wise men, feeling at unease and being warned by God in a dream, decide not to see Herod on their way home. Herod realizes he's been tricked, and out of anger and fear he orders his soldiers to go to Bethlehem and kill every male child two years of age and younger.

The historians of the era recorded a number of crazy and murderous things Herod did in an effort to protect himself and to keep control of his kingdom, which he ruled in the service of the Roman empire. But there are no specific records of Herod ordering the "slaughter of the innocents" in Bethlehem. If you do a little reading, you find that writers often note that such an act, though unsupported by fact, would not have been out of character for Herod.

Whether the slaughter of the innocents took or place or not, it's a disturbing part of Matthew's account of the birth and early years of Christ. I was curious how modern Christian religious thinkers explain the slaughter and its place in the story of the birth of Christ. I don't recall any explanations of this part of the story from my years in Catholic school, etc.

The slaughter of the innocents seems like an eerie blood sacrifice that the people of Bethlehem had to offer up to deliver Jesus to safety and to allow him to become the Messiah. Perhaps not surprisingly, I can't find any accounts among the Christian sources I looked at online that supports that notion, though in a narrative sense, the murder of the male babies of Bethlehem seems to foreshadow the eventual crucifixion of Christ, "the lamb of God." I also realize that simply searching for online sources for theological issues is probably an exercise akin to skating on thin ice, and is inherently foolish. I should find a few serious and respected sources and read those. However, I think I vetted the sources I looked at online closely enough to get a sense of the general directions that Christian thinkers take when they approach Matthew 2: 16-18--if they approach it at all! A few writers I found online candidly admit that they don't really know how to deal with this part of the story. Who can blame them?

In a brief search, there were two general approaches for explaining Matthew 2: 16-18 that kept coming up. The first is, essentially, "the workings of the Lord are inscrutable," but one has to trust that there's a purpose for everything, even the worst possible things that can happen to people. Here's an example of that approach.

The second approach is an interesting one that says "look how much anger and hatred there is when people are faced with the truth of Christ." In essence, Herod couldn't deal with the truth, so he tried to kill it. When the world rejects the Truth or reacts in anger or violence, it only proves just how real the Truth is. The story is a reminder that evil is real and active in the world, and that we need Christ to counteract that evil.

Another analysis that both of the above approaches seem to accept is that the Matthew 2 narrative works to show that Old Testament prophecies, particularly from the books of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isiah, came to fruition with Jesus. There's also a clear parallel between the Moses/Exodus OT narrative and the birth of Jesus, the fleeing of the Holy Family to Egypt, and their eventual return following Herod's death.

Regardless of the explanations, it's still difficult to conceive of the workings of a mind that would purposely and maliciously destroy innocent human life . . . and from there it's no large step to wonder why anyone would purposely destroy any human life. Incredible effort is spent to understand human suffering, particularly of innocents, but it still remains difficult to explain the purpose of that suffering. Even assuming one has faith in Christ or a so-called higher power or a human leader, it remains a tremendous proverbial leap of faith to accept that suffering, regardless of how it arises, is part of some larger purposeful plan, particularly when it always seems so random and cruel, and especially when it strikes people who have no idea it's coming, no comprehension of what could be behind it, and no ability to defend themselves.

Matthew 2:16-18:

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

(Photo from the Cincinnati Enquirer, May 5, 2005)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Happy Birthday, John Milton

b. December 9, 1608.

Everyone in the world should read Paradise Lost. We wouldn't have any spare time left to get into trouble.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

ABA Logo Proposal


The American Birding Association is considering changing their logo. This might work.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Church Window


The falling sun through the high windows in church Saturday afternoon produced sets of creepy shadows.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

In Rainbows

I'm a good ten years-plus behind the times when it comes to music, and hopelessly un-hip. Lately I've been obsessively playing Radiohead's album In Rainbows, which until I looked it up on Wikipedia a short few minutes ago, I thought dates to 2001 or thereabouts. Shows what I know. It was released in 2007. The lyrics to the songs are included with the CD art, and they're arranged in a fashion superficially similar to Jessica Smith's plastic poems (check out 2005's Butterflies), but the disorientation or reorientation in the lyric pages of In Rainbows is produced by fiddling with the spacing between and among words--so if you're patient, it's easy enough to read Radiohead's lyrics "straight." Smith's poems, by contrast, allow a reader to wander through them, creating paths of his or her own choosing. There's not necessarily a straight way to read her poems. Maybe the difference is academic . . .

Regardless, I'm too lazy to take the time to read the lyrics for In Rainbows, and generally, the lyrics are not clear in the songs themselves, which is great: a listener can make up his or her own lyrics and occasionally out of the mix a few stray words or entire lines and phrases leap out. The lyrics, even if you don't bother to try to figure them out, are no less effective for being largely inscrutable: the emotion or sense of each song comes across clearly regardless of whether the lyric is intelligible. It reminds me of the lyrics to the songs on REM's Fables of The Reconstruction, which didn't make any sense to me when I first bought the album after it was released. Even after listening to it a few times I couldn't make out what Michael Stipe was singing. Then one evening, in that half-awake-half-asleep state we all find ourselves in from time to time, seemingly the entire lyric to "Driver 8" played out in a waking dream. Aha! Now I get it, I thought. Until then, I was pissed that I'd spent a whole $7.99 (1980's vinyl price and a lot of money for a 15-year-old at the time) on an album filled with incomprehensible lyrics. That's pretty much how I've listened, or not listened, to popular music ever since, aside from, say, Sinatra or Dylan. It's much more interesting to not know what the singer is singing.

I was talking with a friend a couple weeks back about manipulating photographs in Photoshop and similar software. He mentioned that one reason he likes to work with metal sculpture is that he can make something with his own hands--there's no computer manipulation involved. That struck a chord with me. Almost everything I've done has been computer manipulated! A bit self conscious perhaps, but I started paying more attention to what I might write or draw with my own hands, without aid of a computer. (This piece, which began as a hand-written glyph of the word "eyes," was manipulated and transformed entirely by computer; so even when I've started something by hand, the end product, for what it's worth, is computer-torqued).

Here are a couple In Rainbows-inspired doodles (Geof Huth might call such writing "fidgetglyphs," which is a much better word than "doodle") that I found myself writing during a meeting I attended a few days ago.



In the song "15 Step" Radiohead's Thom Yorke spits out the phrase "etcetera, etcetera" like a barbed retort roughly mid-way through the song. It's the only part of the lyric to the song I can ever remember. I find I often use "etc.," in my emails and letters and notes; perhaps I need to rethink that innocuous abbreviation. It's more powerful than I've given it credit for. Thank you, Radiohead, for making me realize that.

Before I bothered to read the song titles on In Rainbows I thought that the fourth track on the album was called "We're Fishing." Turns out it's called "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." Here's a weird fish of my own, which like "etcetera" came out of the meeting Monday night. I couldn't help but to color this bit of writing in "Goldfish Cracker Cheese Orange," to match the roughly two million Goldfish crackers I've served up to the kids and their friends, and eaten myself, over the past ten years.

My handwriting is not good; my illustration skills are as poor as my lettering skills, but there's something interesting and satisfying about accepting whatever limitations one might have and working with them. And for some reason, looking at both glyphs, I can somehow remember just about everything we covered in that meeting . . .

Tuesday, December 1, 2009