Tag Archives: swarthmore

Birding with Joanna and her Dad

Definitely the most frustrating part of Finals period is not necessarily the stress and the busyness, but the fact that I have to miss spring migration! Finally, I got a chance to head into the Crum this morning with Joanna and her dad, which was a nice treat. We headed out around 1030 am, which is a bit of a late start for me, but it didn’t matter as we found some great birds! Continue reading

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Electricity in the Cities

Cities fascinate me; it’s probably the result of growing up in suburban North Carolina. Philadelphia was a primary reason I chose to come to Swarthmore, the school provided an idyllic and tranquil suburban campus with easy access to the benefits of a large city. Those benefits have become relatively trivial for me, I basically only go into the city to buy records or to watch arthouse films now, but it’s nice to have those opportunities at least, certainly better than going to some remote school such as Williams.

Probably my favorite part of the cities is the public transportation. Even as a young kid, I was always fascinated by trains, subways, buses, and other forms of transport; on visits to Washington DC, I would want to ride to subway just for fun, with no particular destination in mind. On the train ride into Philadelphia this morning, I started to wonder what drove that interest. What made a train so radically different from a car? I think it may have something to do with the human aspect; for some reason I love the idea of riding a cold, soulless machine that will transport me across a city. Obviously that’s not entirely accurate, as there have to be brakemen, engineers, conductors, and track operators to ensure that the train runs along smoothly. But that human element is certainly far more removed on a train than in a car. That still doesn’t entirely answer my question of why I like public transportation, specifically why I would prefer getting a ride from a piece of machinery rather than from a human, but it’s a start. Doesn’t entirely explain buses either, but I will admit that I vastly prefer subways and trains to buses. I know, it makes no sense.

I guess the other aspect of cities I really enjoy is the people-watching. There really aren’t enough characters in the suburbs, everyone is just a typical middle-class family working office jobs and sending their kids to school, just like in the ’50s. When you venture into the downtown portions of the cities in my area, all that’s really there are businessmen and city government workers. I feel like in the South, all the true characters ride around in the rural areas, waving their confederate flags and hunting quail, whereas in the North all the characters are in the city, with a much higher concentration and density.

Just getting off the train at Market East Station, a middle-school aged kid strode up the stairs with a massive mohawk and at least a dozen chains jangling from various articles of clothing and piercings on his body, accompanied by his relatively normal-looking parents. A white-haired 60-year old man walked by, with blue jeans hiked up all the way, and a vintage black Ramones t-shirt. A pair of 30-year old twins wearing identical Sufjan Stevens shirts passed me on the street. Those are sights that I would never dream of witnessing down in North Carolina, but do denizens of the northern cities become accustomed to such encounters? I’m incredulous that it could even be a possibility. At AKA Music, my favorite record shop in the world, the cashier was having trouble swiping my debit card through his machine, and he began to grow increasingly frustrated. The swipes became faster, harder, stronger, and he seemed to become genuinely furious at my card. On the final two swipes, he slammed the card through the machine so hard that it flew out of his hand and calmly fluttered back behind the counter. For some reason, it finally worked on the last try. I feel like this would never happen in North Carolina, there’s just too much patience and Southern hospitality, and so I was fascinated by the display put on by this indie record store clerk.

As usual, I came into the city this weekend with the intent of purchasing records, not for myself this time around, but for the radio station, which didn’t receive a few crucial records from their respective labels over the summer. That objective was quickly accomplished, and so I killed time by browsing the used bins to find some little gems for myself. For some reason, today was an unbelievably exceptional day in the used bin, and somehow I emerged with eleven albums, with an average cost of around five dollars per record. My mom would probably be thrilled to learn that I was saving so much money, but really I’m just cheap. If a three hundred dollar box set was on sale for thirty bucks, I probably wouldn’t take it. I’m more concerned about the final price than I am about the discount.

Here’s what I scored for myself:

  • Elvis Costello – My Aim is True | 4.99 | retail: 18.98 |74% savings
  • Decemberists – The Tain EP | 5.99 | r: 9.99 | 40%
  • Bob Dylan – Bringing it All Back Home | 2.99 | r: 11.98 | 75%
  • Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde | 8.99 | r: 13.98 | 36%
  • Pavement – Spit on a Stranger EP | 0.99 | r: out of print
  • R.E.M. – Out of Time | 0.99 | r: 13.98 | 93%
  • R.E.M. – Automatic for the People | 0.99 | r: 13.98 | 93%
  • Secret Mommy – Hawaii 5.0 EP | 0.99 | r: 8.50 | 88%
  • Talking Heads – Fear of Music (DualDisc) | 8.99 | unavailable outside of boxset
  • Talking Heads – Remain in Light (DualDisc) | 8.99 | unavailable outside of boxset
  • Talking Heads – Speaking in Tongues (DualDisc) | 8.99 | unavailable outside of boxset

So far, the Secret Mommy EP was pretty aimless and forgettable, My Aim is True was pretty derivative and wasn’t as catchy as I expected (I’m sure that opinion will change in time), while Bringing it All Back Home is completely destroying me, it’s not as cohesive and consistent as Blonde on Blonde but some of the songs are a lot better, ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (obviously) in particular. I have to say that I’m incredibly excited about the Talking Heads purchases, I had kinda planned on slowly purchasing each album one by one in chronological order, but I couldn’t pass up this kind of deal. I will be spending a lot of quality time with these records.

Back on campus, Meg was clever and nice enough to post a Crum Woods Sightings Board outside the Bio department office, enabling college students and staff to share any cool experiences in the Crum. Professor Hiebert Burch sighted a Bald Eagle soaring behind Martin one evening, which was unbelievable.

Not to be outdone, I climbed up onto the Parrish fire escape the next morning, trying to catch the peak of Broad-winged Hawk migration. Over a thousand had been seen in Media the day before, so I felt like my chances were pretty good. Apparently I forgot that hawks require warm thermals to soar in the air, and said thermals don’t form until much later in the day as the temperature rises, so I didn’t see any hawks that morning. Looking at my watch, I had about 20 minutes until my Genetics test, so I thought I’d head over to the Science Center Coffee Bar, grab a cup of coffee, and sit down for the exam.

And that’s when I discovered that the fire escape door didn’t have a handle on the outside. So I was locked on the fire escape.

I panicked. I was trapped sixty feet in the air, with no escape routes, with an important test in 20 minutes, with no cellphone, and nobody inside to open the door for me. I thought about punching through a window and scrambling back in. I tried picking the doorlock, but even then I had no way of actually opening it, so no luck. I thought about ramming through the door with brute force. I even briefly considered climbing down the side of the building, Spiderman-style. The birds flying all around me mocked me with their wings. I had a test in 10 minutes, and I was completely trapped. Finally, I noticed a woman walking on the ground far below, so I yelled to try and capture her attention. She looked up, so I explained my situation. She didn’t respond at all, just slowly walked into the building. My only hope, and it’s gone! I have a test in 10 minutes! #$#)@!)(#@%$#@()!!!!!!!1!!!!1111

Fortunately, I heard the elevator doors open, and a few seconds later the woman emerged through the fire escape door and let me back in. I thanked her profusely, but she seemed sleepy and utterly confused as to what I was doing on a fire escape so early in the morning, so I thanked her one last time and ran to the lecture hall for my test. Which I felt I did pretty well on, thankfully, but it was an absolutely bizarre way to start the day. If I ever go up there again, and that’s a big if, I’ll certainly remember to prop the door open.

Later that afternoon, I ventured into Crum Meadow for one final attempt at catching some hawks. All I saw was a lone juvenile Red-tailed, but as I started to head back I saw a small gray bird foraging in the knotweed. Snapping it into my binoculars, it was immediately apparent that this was a flycatcher, just based on structure and habits. But what kind of flycatcher?

I ruled out the tyrant flycatchers and Myiarchus flycatchers by size and shape. I ruled out Eastern Phoebe, as it had an incredibly bold eyering, wingbars, and the wing feathers were well-defined. I ruled out Eastern Wood-Pewee, as there was no dark vest on its chest, only a faint yellow wash on the belly, and a white breast.

So that left me with the Empidonax flycatchers. This was a very gray bird, with a short bill, ruling out the common Acadian Flycatcher and the possibility of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. That left Willow/Alder, and Least Flycatchers. Again, I was struck by the incredibly bold eyering, the small bill, and the flat head. That led me to Least Flycatcher, a life bird, and a bird that doesn’t even appear on the offical Crum Woods checklist! Strangely, it is mentioned in Pulcinella’s Delaware County guide as occuring in the Meadow during migration, but that possibility, along with many others, are contested by the school’s observational records. Despite this, I’m about 95% sure that this was a Least Flycatcher, an exciting finding to be sure.

Combine all this with my recently sprained ankle, suffered during a soccer exercise, and last night’s successful WSRN party, and we’ve got an unusually eventful week for me. But I’m not one for drama, so here’s to hoping that the next few weeks bring more tranquility, more peace, and less work.

But, more links:

Tilling of the Earth

I’m currently taking a course on Religion and Ecology, specifically what roles religion can play in either encouraging environmental stewardship, or in encouraging the exploitation of nature. As part of the class, I’m required to write journal entries whenever the inspiration strikes. After our first class discussion, I already had some ideas that I wanted to float into my journal, which I’ve decided to stick on this blog for now. I mean, why not. These aren’t deeply personal or private thoughts, and if you’re not interested, I totally understand, and you can feel free to just skip to the links or past posts. Really, I’d just rather stick them here than on some lonely word document lost somewhere in my unorganized hard drive.

Much of our discussion today centered on an article by Lynn White, entitled The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, published in a 1967 volume of the journal Science. In the article, White accuses Christianity of gradually encouraging the exploitation of the world’s resources, for several different reasons that I won’t go into here. In discussing changes in human mindsets, White brings up the technology of the plow, that farmers use to ready their soil for planting.

Early plows merely scratched the soil, and required only two oxen to pull. Thus, families usually owned single plots that were capable of only supporting themselves, with perhaps a small surplus to sell on the market. But at some point, peasants in northern Europe developed a deeper cutting plow that required the force of eight oxen to pull, but was much more efficient in preparing the soil for crops. But because no single family owned eight oxen, neighborhood families then pooled together their oxen and collaborated in plowing very large plots to support the entire community.

White sees this as an important transition in the human farmer’s attitudes towards nature. Initially with the scratch plow, humans were friendly with the environment and only took what they needed to subsist and survive. The advent of the deepcut plow encouraged larger plots and more exploitation of the land and more greed, which led human society to the unfortunate state that we now find ourselves in.

Several classmates raised the point that here, then, is evidence that technology, and not religion, is largely at fault for our destruction of nature. Specifically, technologies that increase our efficiency at harvesting resources encourage this harvesting further.

This was a valid point, but I started to think about why these technologies were developed to begin with. If humans began in an idyllic life in relative harmony with nature, why was there a need for the deepcut plow in the first place? I don’t believe that it was invented on pure accident, I believe that someone felt the need to exploit the earth further, and therefore developed this new plow, which means that technology alone was not at fault. There needed to be some sort of impetus to raise the need for new technology, and the question we must ask is whether religion is that impetus.

For example, a classmate mentioned that the Incas of South America did not exploit their territory’s resources, largely because they did not have the necessary technology. But I feel that there was no technology because there was no drive to invent the necessary devices to begin with, and that the Incas truly were in tune with their surroundings. You need a reason to invent, which the Incas did not have, while the Europeans across the sea did see a need for more efficiency, possibly because of differences in religion.

But then, isn’t the single scratch plow harming the environment somewhat as well? It requires a small plot of land to be cleared of vegetation, which would clearly require some changes to the natural habitat. So the scratch plow itself is an increase in efficiency from some earlier techniques, which makes me think that technology is a slippery slope. Once the very first agricultural tool was developed, means of making it more efficient commenced, leading to the inventions of increasingly destructive tools. So when did this all begin? The Neolithic Revolution, when man settled down from their hunter gatherer ways? Why did this occur? There’s a lot of disagreement about the causes of the Neolithic Revolution, but I would think that it has something to do with human nature iself, as I don’t see how any other factor could affect populations on such a global scale to such a large degree.

But if it’s human nature that’s to blame, why did some civilizations hold respect for nature, while others clearly did not? This brings us back to White’s original case for Christianity as an anti-environmentalist religion. He believes that pagan animist cultures who saw spirits and gods in every aspect of nature would use their religion as a reason to respect the environment, a belief system which Christianity would come to destroy. I’m starting to feel that this argument is about to get incredibly circular, and obviously there’s no clear-cut resolution to the problem, otherwise there would be no reason to hold the class at all. I just felt that I needed to clear up my ideas regarding the role of technology specifically in the rise of environmental destruction.

In other news, I have an 8:30 am class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and so last night I decided that since I’d be waking up early anyways, I should just wake up even earlier to see what fall migrants I could catch in the Crum. That thinking backfired somewhat when I found that the sun rises a lot later than I remembered, and that most of the Crum Woods hillsides aren’t struck by sunlight until even later, leading to a lot of stumbling around in the dark. But even in the darkness and relative silence, I was able to find some really great birds.

  • Northern Waterthrush – new bird for my Crum list! Having experience with Louisiana Waterthrushes, my favorite bird, I could immediately tell that this bird was slightly more streamlined, with a thinner bill, and most evidently, with dense streaks on its chest, and thinner streaks than the broad strokes on the Louisiana. Its tailwagging was also much quicker than the relatively languorous Louisiana. The lighting was too poor to see a difference in the overall color, and I didn’t get any definitive looks at the back of the supercilium. Found in one of the large puddles on the creekside trail below the ampitheater.
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler – two individuals upstream from the hemlock bluffs behind Danawell.
  • Black-and-white Warbler – one bird feeding at eye level in Upper Wister Draw.
  • Acadian Flycatcher – one bird calling at the same location as the Black-throated Blue.

Recent links:

  • This looks like a great road to drive.
  • An interesting invention for your car that lets you see the light change without having to scrunch or crane your neck, for relatively short or tall people.
  • Backpack with built-in basketball holder. Even though I don’t play basketball seriously anymore, I’d still like to carry one around like this, just because.
  • You’ve encountered those cheap sofa-beds in hotels, but how about this sofa that turns into a bunk bed.
  • It looks like there’s a MiG fighter parked in this normal parking lot, next to people’s cars.
  • Cedar Point has an insane new coaster under construction, featuring two launches, and some sick inversions. The press release is here, while the official website with a simulated ride video is here.
  • Help Google improve its Image Search by playing this surprisingly addictive game.

And finally, rest in peace Steve Irwin. You will be missed dearly by all of us.

Banana Phone

The three Deer researchers in my lab decided to have a big Ecology lab dinner last night as a final get-together, and we invited Professor Machado, our fearless leader, along to join us. On the surface, this seemed like a brilliant idea, as all of us have grown quite close over the course of the summer, and Prof. Machado is basically one of the coolest human beings alive, so it was destined to be an amazing dinner.

Our Fearless Leader, replete with the coffee thermos that probably doesn’t leave a 2 foot radius around him.

But the more I thought about it, the more doubts I had. Firstly, I hadn’t heard the greatest things about our apparent restaurant of choice, Peace A Pizza, and hoped this wouldn’t make a bad impression on our guest of honor, who’d never been. Secondly, I’d never invitied a professor out for dinner before, and was worried that long, awkward pauses in conversation would form, or the professor would get shunted out completely by the college kids gossiping about dormitory going-ons. And third, we’d decided that we wanted to buy Prof. Machado a token of our appreciation for his guidance and kindness, so we went to Home Depot and bought him…a banana plant. Wut. It was one of the more surreal experiences in my life, ranking up there with the Garden Ruins discovery: five college kids going to Home Depot to purchase a banana for their beloved professor. I hadn’t the faintest clue of how he’d react to a banana plant, there was simply no precedent whatsoever.

Fortunately, deep analysis was trumped by superficial impressions, and we had a fantastically fun dinner where we basically made fun of each other for three hours over some really excellent pizza, culminating in the hysterical presentation of the banana. The fact that Prof. Machado could hang with us for that long is testament to just how amazingly cool he is. Probably the coolest professor of all time, rivaled only by Shimamoto who loses out because he teaches multi-variable calculus and is probably less cool in person than in class.

Actually I had nothing to talk about, this was just a puff piece. I’m waiting till today’s Tour de France time trail and fantasy football draft to have anything substantive to say.

Links then:

Off the Tracks

After a miraculously productive morning in the field with with Karina, I spent a good chunk of the afternoon driving Marissa to the Delaware Museum of Natural History, to look at some dead birds, and hopefully bring home a dead baby owl. We considered the possibilities of either letting it perch on the dashboard, tying it onto the roof, or letting it roll around in the trunk. In retrospect, what a bizarre reason for a road trip. I’m not sure what single aspect of it could be considered normal.

In any case, turns out no owl was received, the transaction was delayed in order to hammer out further details. But on the way back, we decided to take Smiths Bridge Rd back to the Wilmington Pike, and oh man, what a road. I will attempt to sum things up with the following formula:

Smiths Bridge Rd =

+

And there was even a covered bridge over the Brandywine Creek. In other words, it was just about the greatest road of all-time. Top 5, at least. I had a lot of fun driving on it, and I’m semi-seriously considering making the hour-long one-way trip out to drive it again. The car 10 ft in front of us would consistently drop out of view completely, and suddenly the ground below us would disappear into the abyss, while cornfields camly rolled on to the side. Absolutely perfect geography for the Dukes of Hazzard, if they suddenly became yankees.

Let’s hit the links:

  • The US Naval Observatory has high-resolution scans of ancient books dealing with astronomy and navigation. Very cool constellation interpretations abound. However, I have to admit that the Sumatran Ground-Cuckoo still rules my wallpaper.
  • Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame considers the psychological damage he must have caused to his vanquished opponents. Outstanding, one of my personal heroes for sure.
  • West African Black Rhino, R.I.P.
  • Machu Picchu on Google Maps satellite-view. I really like that road, it certainly has Smiths Bridge Rd potential, but with longer length.
  • Lightning strikes around a rainbow in Arkansas.
  • And finally, some pranksters turn their friend’s room upside-down. This is just completely beyond my realm of comprehension. End blog.

Tinicum: When the Hype Builds

6.6.6 (haha), 800-1030 am
John Heinz NWR at Tinicum, dike trail -> observation blind, warbler woods

I guess this is what I get for revisiting such a revered spot so quickly, it was just bound to disappoint, and I should’ve realized that earlier. I was expecting a repeat of Sunday morning’s success, and instead just got a much quieter version. I probably saw only half as many Yellow Warblers as before, and so I wasn’t walking around in an awe-induced trance this time either. The birding certainly wasn’t bad, it was better than most any day I could possibly have in the Crum, but it still felt quite disappointing, especially considering the earlier start and the better weather.

I was pleased to find a lot of the same birds in the same places, for example I once again saw the same Warbling Vireo seen on Sunday, in the exact same tree as before even. There just seemed to be fewer birds overall, and there were some species that I didn’t pick up at all until my return walk to the parking lot. I did pick up two new species however: Marsh Wren, which was a life bird but which I only heard singing, and Black-crowned Night-Heron, a bird I really haven’t encountered in a while.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, which breeds in small numbers near the Philadelphia airport. Photo by Dan Bastaja.

A return to the Warbler Woods just off the service road netted nothing new, and so I sat for a while on the boardwalk watching the Tree Swallows swooping into the nestboxes. One individual repeatedly dived straight towards my head, which was absolutely thrilling. I realized it was probably because of my bright red hat, with the white Swarthmore “S” on the front. White apparently is an alarm signal for a lot of wildlife (see White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, etc), and the red hat certainly didn’t help. Once I took the hat off, the swallows calmed down, and resumed feeding their nestlings inside the boxes.

  • 3 Marsh Wren – life bird, but heard only, singing in the Tidal Marsh
  • 2 Black-crowned Night-Heron – adult and immature flying around by the observation blind
  • 12 Yellow Warbler – all around refuge
  • 1 Orchard Oriole – just above observation blind
  • 2 Willow Flycatcher – along dike trail
  • 1 Green Heron – boardwalk in Warbler Woods
  • 3 Wood Duck – single individuals in flight, no good looks like last time

Arguably the most productive aspect of the trip was a look at the Visitor Center’s giftshop, which featured an amazing find for me – Birds of Delaware County, by Nick Pulcinella, published by the Birding Club of Delaware County. The book gives detailed descriptions of key sites throughout the county (including the Crum Woods!), and comments and abundance charts for every species that has been found in Delaware County.

Though the writeups for most of the sites seemed extremely helpful, I’m puzzled by many of the birds that he describes as possibilities in the Crum. I won’t go into the details, but to make it short, if I were ever in the Crum and saw a few of the birds that he mentions, I would probably have a heart attack, and die a happy man. A few don’t even appear on Janet Williams’ checklist at all, not even as anecdotal possibilites. Other extremely rare migrants are reported by Pulcinella to actually be quite common and easy to find, but if that were the case, I would probably never even go to class. Why would I head to class if I could ogle at the abundant Blackburnian Warblers right in the Science Center parking lot? I don’t think this is a case of changes in habitat and abundance in the past ten years, I severely doubt that Blackburnians have ever been easy to find, much less right in the parking lot. I wonder if this is simply pure conjecture based on the habitat, or if its even overhyping, in order to try and attract birders to the area.

Despite its shortfalls, I will certainly be using this guide on my visits to other local birding areas. Hopefully the information contained in those sections is roughly accurate.

And now, some miscellaneous sightings in the Crum from the past few days

  • 1 Scarlet Tanager – singing in the Wister, really easy to find now
  • 1 Eastern Wood-Pewee – Upper Wister Draw
  • 1 Common Yellowthroat – probably on territory in Skunk-Cabbage Hollow
  • 2 Acadian Flycatcher – can be heard from Harvard Rd. on the walk to campus from ML, also on territory in Wister

Returns

5.31.2006, 730-830 am
Strath Haven -> Crum Meadow

Just a quick jaunt to see what’s happenin’. Birdwise, Eastern Wood-Pewees have certainly arrived, as there were 3 singing along the creek behind Strath, so that was an easy checkmark on the Crum birdlist. Also rewarding was my first Common Yellowthroat of the woods, fulfilling yesterday’s prophecy. At one point, the bird climbed up a bare vine, and then flew into a dead tree, you simply couldn’t ask for a better look. Later, two goldfinches flew into the same tree, right next to the yellowthroat, I’m sure Ezra Pound would’ve been all over that junk.

Perhaps even more noticable than the birds was the ridiculous amount of plant growth that’s happened since I left. The stands of Japanese Knotweed, which were formerly about waist-high, have now grown up to over 10 ft, which sadly is far taller than I am, completely obstructing my views of the creek in some places. Many of the grasses and other ground cover flora have burst up as well, and the result was that Strath was almost completely choked off from the Crum proper by tall grass and Japanese Knotweed. I’m not sure if I’ll be making that trek again, not just because of the impassability, but it seems like a ripe location for ticks as well.

On the bright side, Crum Meadow has finally become an actual meadow rather than just a lawn, something that I’ve hoped to see ever since I got here. I really do hope they keep the meadow like this, as the potential for wildlife is immense. There were some grasses with small purple flowers than the goldfinches seemed to flock towards, as I saw up to ten perched together in a single cluster of the plants. It’s a little late in the breeding season now, but it seems like the kind of habitat that birds like Blue Grosbeaks or Yellow-breasted Chats could find attractive, which would be amazing.

Surprisingly, I found no orioles behind Strath; before I left I’d found three singing males in the sycamores near the bridge. Perhaps they’re simply not singing, as I didn’t hear the Rose Tree Park bird singing either. In addition, the Yellowthroat was the only warbler I encountered, so no Parulas, Black-throated Blues or Greens, or any of the other warblers. I completely missed the wave of Redstarts, Blackpolls, and other late migrants then, which is disappointing. But I’m content to settle in and get comfortable with these summer residents now.

  • 1 Common Yellowthroat – male, wetland in the Skunk-Cabbage Hollow
  • 4 Eastern Wood-Pewee – three behind Strath, one in the Wister garden
  • 2 House Wren – Crum ledge, Holly collection
  • 1 Veery – Skunk-Cabbage Hollow, not singing unfortunately
  • 2 Acadian Flycatcher – Skunk-Cabbage Hellow, Crum thickets