About noon this past Monday a magical event occurred. It went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated by most, but it had a hemisphere-wide impact on us in the North. At 1747 (GMT) the sun reached its most southerly declination, an annual happening known as the winter solstice. Indeed we have bottomed out for the year and now stare six months of growing day length squarely in the face. I love it. It will take a month or so for the temperatures to round the corner but with more minutes of daylight, winter now becomes easier to take.
It may have happened to me before but I can't recall. Certainly it's rarely experienced even during this season. But happen it did. Late last week, I found myself taking a stroll in the cold and light snow in a wooded area along the Red River. All told, I probably walked a mile through the trees and weedy overgrowth. A half hour later I returned to my car somewhat stunned. During the entire excursion I had not seen nor heard a single bird. Not a woodpecker, not a chickadee, not a crow, nothing. For a few weeks in May a person could reasonably find 100 species in this same area.
I've grown used to the funny looks; the subtle little side glances as they pass by on bicycle or on foot, often walking a dog. Or maybe it's the delayed turnaround after putting enough distance between us, just to make sure they aren't being followed by the strange guy with the binoculars. From the homebound, it's the furtive peek around the curtain. It's the rare person - often a young child - whose curiosity can't keep them from asking that which is begging to be asked, "Are you a bird watcher?" I can't blame them, of course.
Eclipse (i klips), n. the partial or complete obscuring, relative to a designated observer, of one celestial body by another, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. But this wasn't the definition I was seeking. Actually none of the three dictionaries I accessed had it. But such is often the case when words are borrowed and narrowed by specific fields of endeavor. It wasn't until I looked in the Encyclopedia of North American Birds that I found the eclipse I was looking for, but instead of noun usage, it's now an adjective, as in eclipse plumage.
The annual Halloween season has a way of letting the weird, the unexplained, and the downright scary rule for a time. Both my kids have seen the latest spooky movie - "Paranormal Activity." Our culture has a way of cultivating a certain uneasiness this time of year, at least the retailers do. I think it has something to do with sales. Being freaked out, it seems, is worth paying for. There is more value inherent in those things we call legends and myths beyond money. They serve as a form of entertainment and can be a rich source of ideas.
There is a basic and centuries old principle familiar to anyone who has taken a class in economics; something called the law of diminishing returns. Simply stated, it says as one factor of production is increased while others are kept constant, a point will eventually be reached when output per unit of input begins to decrease. In an odd sort of way, the search for birds can suffer a similar mathematical fate. Let me explain. Let's say a person is just discovering the rewards and joys of the outdoors - specifically birding - and has decided to keep a log of every new species encountered.
There is a reasonable and valid explanation why Lady Justice is often depicted wearing a blindfold in addition to hefting the scales of justice and brandishing a sword. It's to proclaim to the populace the idea that the law will be meted out objectively and without prejudice; a noble ideal indeed and one difficult to fully achieve in practice. There are other areas beyond law that spend considerable energy trying to rid bias from their midst. Science comes immediately to mind. Studies done in the name of science go to great lengths to nullify the influence of human prejudices.
Sometimes they come in bunches, often they are singles. Some are neatly packaged in a tight, folded tuck piercing the air like a missile while others are in full sail displaying to the world beneath their every feature. Some fan the air with their wings rather lazily, others frantically. Pete Dunne calls these migrating birds "wind masters." Most folks refer to them simply as hawks. Let's be clear on definitions. The term "hawk" can be loosely tossed about and mean different things to different people.
The passing years tend to dull memories somewhat. This is no less true with our schooling as well. I probably couldn't pass a statistics test today nor could I stand a chance in organic chemistry. But certain classes taught by certain instructors somehow defy this notion of lost information. For whatever reason, I actually remember a few of these classes with some clarity. I think it's the right mixture of an interesting subject, a dynamic and capable instructor, and course material that grabs the student a certain way. So it was with Dr.
The nesting season is all but over for the vast majority of birds in the Northern Hemisphere. Many finished the business of gene perpetuation some months past. About a week ago, songbirds began to show movement away from territory, starting the process of migration. But for birders, the star attractions during this late summer lull have been shorebirds.