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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Birding Providence

My house is right on Providence Rd, in the township of Nether Providence in Pennsylvania, so when I am yard birding, I am literally birding Providence.
Birding Providence

But that's not the Providence I'm thinking of this week, after some interesting birding experiences.  For centuries, Providence has been used as a name for Deity, or for the foresight or beneficial intervention of God.  No matter your theology about Providence (there are even naturalistic or atheist traditions addressing it), it is fun to ponder and consider the magic that sometimes happens in birding.  Here are two examples from just one day this week.

1) My wife woke me up at 12:30 in the morning because she needed help with something.  While I am a Latter-day Saint, I am no angel, and am especially grumpy after being awoken from a deep sleep.  But after I composed myself, I got out of bed and helped her for half an hour.  After that, since I was already awake, I decided I would listen to my NFC microphone recording in progress, to see what might be migrating over my house.  I fell asleep with the earbuds in, but was awoken again just after 3am by the distinct loud churr call of a King Rail migrating over my house.  This is a very rare bird in my county, with very few records after their local breeding habitat was mostly destroyed by a Philadelphia airport expansion project over 20 years ago. If I hadn't gotten up to help my wife, I wouldn't have put in the earbuds, and I wouldn't have heard this cool bird and added it to my year and county list. So that was very Providential!

King Rail CHURRR call, Nether Providence, PA

2) Later that day several of us were social-distance birding together at the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia airport.  One of my friends went home for lunch, and missed a pair of Least Terns, rare for the county, as they flew past us.  We commented on how sometimes we make the wrong choices.  He texted us a few minutes later, with cell phone pics of a Mississippi Kite, another rare and hard to find migrant in the region, that had just flown over his house while he was doing yard work! Maybe he didn't make the wrong choice after all!  Forty-five minutes later, I had the thought that I should let my friends in Haverford know about the kite sighting.  They went outside as soon as they got my text, and almost immediately saw and photographed a Mississippi Kite flying over their yard!  This was ten miles away from where the bird was first seen, and its impossible to know if it is the same bird--what would the chances be? And what are the chances that I would think to text them at the exact moment they would need to go outside to see the bird--a lifer for one of them?  And my birding friend that missed the terns?  He later rejoined us just in time to see a second pair of Least Terns fly by. Amazing! Providential!

Of course it doesn't always happen that way.  Sometimes we don't see the bird.  Sometimes we barely miss it.  But it happens often enough that whether you call it God or karma or whatever, magic like this happens.  Sometimes you think of an unlikely bird, and then see one shortly thereafter. Or bizarre "coincidences" happen to put you in just the right place at just the right time to have a completely unexpected, yet providential, bird sighting. That's one of the things that I love most about birding--the skill, hard work, luck, and dare I say Providence, that has to come together to find a bird you are looking for, or to discover one that you couldn't expect.

Birding Providence.  One of my great joys of birding.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

In Praise of the Sun

The sun, dominating the horizon during my first hour of Outdoor Church
I missed sunrise this morning, as I didn't get outside until 45 minutes later.  But during my 4 hours of Outdoor Church in the yard, I became increasingly cognizant and appreciative of my relationship to the sun.

During the first hour, with the sun low on the horizon, the local weather station was showing a temperature of 36F, but there was still frost on our cars.  I was constantly dancing with the sun, to get warm, to position my body so that I could better see the birds in my yard.  Eventually, the sun climbed higher, as did the temperature.  But I was constantly looking around the sun--avoiding looking directly at it, yet looking to see where its light was most effectively making it possible to see and identify the loons, cormorants, and other birds as they passed by (see my eBird list here).

It was a perfect Sun day.  And though we still have one day of the week that carries its name, we are a culture committed to severing ourselves from the sun.  We use subterranean fossilized sunshine for most of our energy needs.  We are Hadean, rather than Celestially oriented. Our daily cycle, dominated by artificial lighting, is less and less tied to the sun.  Even our calendar, once dominated by Moonths and the passage of the sun, is now more dominated by fiscal years and quarterly financial forecasts.  Past societies literally built their most prominent buildings to line up with the passage of the sun.  The sun is shining, but we mostly just use it as a light source for our outdoor entertainments.

But sitting in my yard, I ponder all the ways the sun still sustains us--all the plants in my yard, also dancing to best catch the sun's rays, all the birds, all the other life forms, moving in daily and seasonal cycles with the sun.  All my food that needs the sun to grow. Light, warmth, and comfort. As a birder, I dance with those birds, as they dance with the sun.

It was a perfect Sun day, as should be they all!

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Birding the COVID-19 Shutdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed many people and disrupted the lives of many more.  While it is a terrible tragedy and scary for all of us, I've been birding a lot from my yard as well as local hotspots I can get to without having to bump into too many people.  I've got my NFC station up and running, and have already had a couple of Virginia Rails caught on tape.  I am currently #1 on eBird for the Delaware County this year, and my yard list is currently #1 in the county and #6 in Pennsylvania.

Today I was looking for Horned Larks and American Pipits--two tough birds to get in my county.  No dice in a field where they were seen yesterday (and missed by me later in the afternoon), but I did manage to get a photo of a Vesper Sparrow that has been hanging out there.  And just as I was going to leave, a Wild Turkey wandered across the field--my first for Delaware County and my overall county bird #235.  So, yay!

Vesper Sparrow, Glen Mills, Pennsylvania

After the fields at Glen Mills, I headed down to check my local patch, the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia Airport.  My first Forster's Terns of the year were hanging out on the low tide sandbar until the local Bald Eagles put them up.  21 Wilson's Snipe in a ditch, and 13 American Kestrels hunting on the airport runways were high counts.  On my way home, an American Coot--surprisingly tough to see in the county, was bird #128 for me in the county this year.

My heart goes out to everyone who is suffering.  For those who are able, enjoy your yard birds or birds close to home.  Be safe, be healthy, be well!

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Ornitheology Seminar

Looking forward to my latest five lecture series coming up next week at Widener University--Ornitheology: Birds as Symbols and Messengers of the Divine.  Lectures will include:

  1. Introduction and Birds in Australian Dreaming and African Animism
  2. Birds in Shamanic Cultures
  3. Ancient Middle Eastern and European Gods and Birds
  4. Birds in the Abrahamic Religions
  5. Eastern and Southeast Asian Religions and Birds

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