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How important is it to be able to identify all the birds that you’ve ever seen? It’s not important at all if your goal is simply to enjoy these lovely creatures. It’s really all about your level of interest. I’ve included some of my photos of interesting birds here for your enjoyment.

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This fellow is called a frigate bird.

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As I read about Birding’s Big Year I started to think about what birds I could identify. I’m betting that most of us recognize robins and cardinals and blue jays. Where I grew up there were starlings and catbirds. Pigeons were everywhere. There were ducks at the local park though I don’t know what kind of ducks they were. Now I would recognize a mallard duck. We have magpies and crows and a variety of hawks where I now live. And most of us would recognize a swan or a flamingo.

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This fellow is called a Blue-footed Booby.

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There are zillions of little brown birds. These fellows are a variety of mockingbird.

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These fellows are  a variety of Albatross.

The more I look at pictures of birds and read about birds: I am fascinated. Lately, there’s been disturbing news about birds. Overall, 40 percent of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in decline. The report, The State of the World’s Birds, compiled every five years, finds that the populations of even once-widespread, easily recognizable species — including puffins , snowy owls , and turtle doves — are rapidly declining. Estimates are that we have lost a BILLION birds in North America since 1970.  There’s lots of information on the Internet about why this is happening and ways to help.

I’ve offered photos of just five species and consider the stunning variety in just these five.

If you would like to see more amazing photos of birds, Google Joel Sartore bird photography. He’s an American photographer, speaker, author, teacher, and a long time contributor to National Geographic magazine. He is the head of The National Geographic Photo Ark project, a 25-year effort to document the approximately 12,000 species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries.

In my next blog I’ll show some of my birdy artwork with more birdy thoughts.

 

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For The Birds

A big year is a personal challenge or an informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species as possible by sight or sound, within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area. Author Mark Obmascik wrote a book titled The Big Year. A movie of the same title was also made starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. Both book and movie are delightful.

What I read or watch usually fires up my interest in exploring what I’ve just learned or invokes fond memories. This book and movie accomplished both.

One of my earliest memories is of feeding ducks in a local park. I picked tufts of grass and threw them into the pond and the ducks snapped them up. Many years later, on the other side of the country, I took my folks to a local park where there were ducks and geese. We took a bag of stale bread and in half a second we were deluged with feathery creatures demanding food. It was exhilarating!

I owned parakeets as a kid and I have another fond memory of one parakeet that sang every time I practiced the piano. Another parakeet fell in love with my mother. Pepper the parakeet would sit on my other’s finger and Mom would make soft whistle and click sounds while stroking Pepper’s back. Soon, Pepper started tearing up the newspaper at the bottom of the cage and then eggs started arriving. How many women can say that they are the father of a parakeet’s eggs? The eggs were not fertile, of course, but we rescued each one and saved them in a jar in the fridge for a time: proof of human and parakeet love.

One of the necessities of a Big year is about being able to identify birds by sight or sound. This is difficult. Very difficult. I think that most of us can easily identify a robin or a pigeon or a cardinal. Many of the birds that turned up at our eastern bird feeder and bird bath were starlings or the occasional cat bird so I recognize them. But if you get yourself a bird identification book – and there are zillions of them available – you very quickly find out that there are flocks of birds that look very similar.

Consider what I call Little Brown Birds. Turns out that what I thought were all sparrows were also likely to be finches. Finches have smaller, more delicate bills that are more sharply pointed. Sparrows generally have longer tails that they are more apt to actively flash, wag, or wave. Finches have shorter tails that are generally narrower, and they do not flash their tails as frequently. Birds are sometimes different colors depending on the time of year and whether they are male or female. Every slight variation merits a different name Consider: there are the American Tree Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Harris’s Sparrow, LeConte’s Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and the House Sparrow. Then there’s the Black Rosy Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Chaffinches, Gold Finches, House Finches, Java Finches,and Java Rice Finches. 

Devoted Big Year folks can identify all of them. But amateurs like me are at a definite disadvantage. This spring, before the pandemic got started, I took a walk around my neighborhood to see what a Big Year might be like. I carried a pair of binoculars. I saw a few birds, most at at distance, all hopping or flying quickly and often, before I found them in my binoculars, they had moved on. Some I could recognize at at distance. But it did not take me more than a minute or two to appreciate the skill of real birders.

In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher took a 30,000 mile road trip visiting the wild places of North America. In 1955, they told the story of their travels in a book and a documentary film, both called Wild America. In a footnote to the book, Peterson claimed “My year’s list at the end of 1953 was 572 species.”

In 1956, a 25-year-old Englishman named Stuart Keith following Peterson and Fisher’s route, compiled a list of 594 species, a record that stood for fifteen years.

In 1998, three birders, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller, of The Big Year movie and book fame chased Komito’s prior record of 722 birds. In the end Komito kept the record, listing 745 species birds plus 3 submitted in 1998 and later accepted by state committees for a revised total of 748.

A new U.S. Big Year record was set on December 23, 2019, when John Weigel found a Steller’s Eider in Alaska, species #837 for the year. The same species also allowed Weigel to set a new record for a United States Big Year. At the close of the year he was at 835 (+1) in this category. WOW!

Consider the amount of travel and the cost of collecting these lists of birds. We are talking thousands of dollars and thousands of miles.

I will never do a Big Year. But I will learn more about birds and even draw and paint some birds. Stay tuned. My next blog will show you some of my pictures and drawings. And the next time you see a bird, any bird – pay attention!

 

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What Might Be Next?

As I assume most of us are, I’ve been mulling over what the future might bring as we struggle to deal with the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Here’s some of my mullings.

There are folks around the country protesting the stay-at-home orders. They are rightfully concerned about how they will be able to afford to live. What should we do?

I’ve met two kinds of folks. Type One will listen to someone with a warning of danger, reach the conclusion that the person offering the warning has their well-being in mind, and act according to the warning. For example, someone might say to them: “Don’t touch that stove. It is very hot and if you touch it you will get badly burned.” Type Ones might get close enough to the stove to realize that it is, indeed, hot and they would listen to the warning and not touch. Type Twos will not believe anything other than direct personal experience and they would touch the stove and get burned.

Which type of person are you?

There’s a 2011 movie starring Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Matt Damon titled Contagion. Film director Steven Soderbergh was motivated to make an “ultra-realistic” film about the public health and scientific response to a pandemic. It is about a global pandemic that was far more dangerous than the one we are experiencing. If we were experiencing that disease, no one would be demanding we reopen our economy because if you got that disease, unless you were among the rare people with immunity, you died. And there was no mass production of a vaccine although they manged to produce one quickly. They could only manufacture so much at at time so when someone got the vaccine depended on a lottery. Some people had a very long wait for their turn. That part of the movie could turn out to be very real. We just don’t know.

I remember first hearing about COVID-19 in January. After that, due to the movie Contagion, I bought a few extra items at the grocery store every time I went. I was not hoarding anything. I just bought a few extras. Now we have meat processing plants closing. Will other food processing plants also be forced to close? Will we all end up in long lines in search of food? My little stash of extra food won’t last long if food disappears from our grocery stores.

I wonder about those folks protesting the closure of businesses. How informed are they? Are they Type Ones or Type Twos? Will some of them die because they don’t believe in the reality of the problem? Will some of them cause others to die because of their actions? I am all for personal freedom. You can risk your own life as much as you wish. But you don’t have the right to risk mine.

The April 20, 2020 issue of Time magazine is all about COVID-19. It focuses on stories of medical personnel and their experiences. These people are incredibly brave, they are risking their lives, and they are terrified. Some of them have gotten sick and some have died.

I’m gong to listen to those people in deciding what I should do. Can you tell, by now, that I am a Type One?

Our credit-based economy, that accepts far too much debt as a normal operating parameter functions well enough when there are no calamities, though how well is debatable. We now have a calamity and this giant problem was not a surprise to many people. They knew – and told others – that it was just a matter of when, not if. These knowledgeable people were brushed off and ignored. Now we are reaping the results of that inaction. A friend asked me why weren’t we better prepared. Because we’d rather spend money on immediate needs rather than potential needs. Because we don’t like to act on information that we don’t like. Because too many of us react to fear-mongers preaching nonsense more than we react to scientists describing facts.

I am all for Capitalism that is inclusive and sustainable. Present-day Capitalism is neither. If it were, we would not have millions of people wondering how to pay for life’s basics. We would not have government increasing our national debt to help people survive. We would not have a global environment in deep trouble. We would not have so many people who were among the poorest-paid in our society now shouldering the burden of keeping that society functioning for the rest of us.

Will we operate differently in the future? Will we listen to and act on facts? Will we learn one of the most valuable lesson of this virus? The virus affects people. It does not care about your gender, your politics, your religion, your ethnicity, your wealth, or any of the categories we use to define people. We need to see people as just people – no more categories. We all need each other and we all need to care for each other.

What will we do? I know for what I will advocate. What will you do?

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Outside the Box

I’ve been an avid reader all my life and I’ve found lots of good advice from fiction. Fictional stories can serve as metaphors – teaching lessons about reality.

Consider this story from Star Trek lore. While studying at Star Fleet Academy, Cadet James T. Kirk, future captain of the star ship Enterprise, took a test called The Kobayashi Maru. The purpose of the test: to confront a no-win scenario and consider how one might deal with a situation where all the choices are awful and all the choices mean losing.

Cadet Kirk did not believe in the no-win scenario. He hacked the test’s computer program so that he could save the day. Instead of disaster, the bad guys were defeated and lives were saved.

Bad: he cheated and ignored the purpose of the test. Good: he thought creatively and accomplished a positive outcome.

These days, the global pandemic we all face might seem like a no-win scenario or perhaps low-win is a better description. How should we confront the aftermath of this crisis? Will we think and act differently?

Are there any perfect scenarios? Probably not. Will we try some different actions because they already work in some places? I hope so. What will we try that is new?

Will we change to all-mail balloting for all future elections? We do that where I live and I do not miss standing in line at polling stations. I find the political debates of the past pointless and annoying because I have no interest in watching candidates trash each other. I also do not attend public campaign events because I have no need to see a candidate in person. What I do want to know is their problem-solving ideas. This type of info could easily be conveyed by TV interviews of individual candidates with one of the rules being that no candidate can mention any opponents.

What will all the restrictions on travel do to the planet’s atmosphere? Will our atmosphere be cleaner? What can we accomplish with less travel for the long term? Will we even discuss that? Will we better appreciate our natural resources and take better care of them?

How will we allocate future resources? I find it horrifying that I could lose loved ones to this disease, not because we don’t know how to treat it but because we don’t have enough medical resources to treat everyone. Yet not treating everyone was happening even before this pandemic. No insurance? Minimal or no treatment. Insurance but sky-rocketing, out-of-reach costs? Minimal or no treatment. Bankruptcy and death? So sad, too bad.

A dear friend who is also a teacher of economics recently did a superb job of explaining to me some economic basics.  Our economy used to be based on the gold standard where the value of money in circulation was equal to the amount of gold at Fort Knox. That changed and now the value of our economy is based on faith which means faith in each other. How much gold are each of us worth?

Economic difficulties may be around – and traumatic- much longer than this virus. While the national government argues over economic stimulus no one is mentioning how this will punch the national debt so high as to possibly be unsolvable. Will we struggle with poverty, starvation, and non-existent opportunities for the immediate and far future? Or will we think outside the box and try some things that might result in more positive outcomes?

If we and our faith in each other are the assets and value of our economy, how can we use those assets to benefit everyone? If actual, real money is numbers on a spreadsheet, can we do a James T. Kirk and reprogram the spreadsheet so that our resources benefit everyone? So far we have been unable and unwilling to end homelessness. So far we have been unable or unwilling to pay people a living wage. These failures cost all of us money and we ignore that because the costs are often hidden in higher bills and higher taxes.

Arguing over economic systems like capitalism or socialism is pointless. If you want more of my views on that you can read my earlier blog titled The ISM Cop-Out. I’d like the aftermath of this global emergency to be as positive as we can make it for everyone. Don’t you want the exact same thing? If not, what’s the matter with you? Will you cling to old ways that no longer work?  Or will you think outside the box and try something new that just might work better?

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Fab

I was eleven years old when my life changed – forever – for the better. The Beatles came to America.

Hubby and I recently saw the movie Yesterday. The premise is that something happens and all evidence of The Beatles vanishes. Only one man remembers that they ever existed. He is a struggling musician and because he remembers their music, he begins to be wildly successful passing off their songs as his. That is as much as I will tell you about the plot of this movie but it is a delightful film and I hope, gentle readers, that you will check it out if you haven’t seen it.

The movie brought back all sorts of growing-up memories for me and I treated myself to a Beatles day. I watched A Hard Day’s Night and Help and started working my way through eight marvelous video tapes: The Beatles Anthology produced in 1996. Oh my goodness. Bliss.

I’ve got four Beatles posters displayed around my house. I’ve got their albums, both original LPs and digital versions. Their music brightly colored my childhood from February 1964 on and has provided memories and pleasure to the present day. These four people changed the world for the better. They sang about peace and love. We sure could use more of that – eight days a week.

Ringo will be eighty years old in July and Paul will be seventy-eight in June. It is heartbreaking that George and John are not still with us. Maybe in an alternate universe they still are. I’d like to see what that universe looks like and sounds like.

There’s a thought in the movie Yesterday: the world without The Beatles is a worse place. No argument here.

I recently heard an interview of actor Daniel Craig who is also from Liverpool. The interviewer suggested that Mr. Craig may be one of the most successful people from Liverpool. Mr. Craig laughed and said, with no need to mention any names, that there are definitely four people from Liverpool who are more famous.

I did not see The Beatles until the second of their Intro-to-America Ed Sullivan Show. It took less than a second for me to be hooked. They were electricity personified. Their humor and charm shone like a laser beam. Every new song was SO GOOD. Critics said that they wouldn’t last. Critics were wrong.

I think of their song This Boy sung in three-part harmony, their heads close together, three friends having fun and sharing that fun with their audience. I think of that amazing sound, unlike anything I’d heard before, created with three voices, three guitars, and a drum set. My folks listened to classical music. I think of that last live performance on the roof of Abbey Road studio. Their enjoyment of their music, despite a lot of group discord at that point in their history, was still there.

I’ve got this amazing and enormous visual and sound collage in my head of four young men, and the pictures and music and all the interactions with my own dear friends and fellow fans that The Beatles gave me. Dearest friends, you know who you are. Those four people and the wonderful songs that they sang for us: I hope that you would agree that it was and still is Fab.

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A Walking List

  • None of us remember learning to walk. At least I don’t and I’ve never met anyone who does. I like to use learning to walk as a metaphor for my drawing students.  Each of us probably fell down a lot before we figured out walking and the same is true of all learning. Mistakes (falling down and getting back up) are sometimes good ways to learn.
  • There was a man-made reservoir near where I grew up. It had a three mile, paved trail around it that was open to the public. Three miles was quite a long walk for a little kid and I was pooped when we finally got home. Only later did it occur to me that my folks might have been eager for their little daughter to be pooped once in a while!
  • Walking around that reservoir, that we called a lake, is among my fondest memories. It was beautiful: snowy white and icy blue in winter, deep green and shady in spring and summer, a riot of oranges and reds and yellows in autumn. We stopped for snacks and we picked blueberries and we looked for frogs and fish. We spotted a snake once. We got lots of exercise, and my dog loved it too. He ran away once and we found him on the road to the lake.
  • In college, we took study breaks in the evening and walked or jogged around the football field. We discovered that a cloud nine is a big, puffy bag for pole jumpers to land on and we loved collapsing on it.
  • When I was a very wee girl we lived in an apartment project at the top of a long, steep hill. One winter, Dad and I and the car got stuck in the snow at the bottom of the hill along with a whole lot of other people and cars. I got very frightened and started to cry. Dad abandoned the car and carried me up the hill and home. I was amazed and impressed.
  • There’s a lovely park near where I grew up. Another special memory: walking through the park in the fall, picking up colored leaves and hunting for chestnuts.
  • I wore the wrong shoes on a trip to Paris: loafers. I wanted to look stylish – if you consider loafers at all stylish. We did all the trip planning that included lots of walking. OW. Sore feet. Dumb. On a later trip to Great Britain I wore heavy-soled sneakers and the heck with style. I had happier feet though I was still limping from a recently-healed broken ankle. (As the Scots might say, best laid plans gang aft agley.)
  • My last full time job was sometimes boring and I got sleepy. To avoid falling out of my chair with a crash I got up and walked around the building – inside in cold weather and outside in warm weather. No one seemed to care or miss me when I disappeared for a while.
  • Dog-walking is fun. My folks wouldn’t let me walk my childhood pet dog because they were afraid he and I would get in some kind of trouble. So I enjoyed my grown-up dog-walking experiences. Walking the neighbor’s dog – for a break – during my Dad’s final days on the planet preserved some of my sanity.
  • Walking around Liverpool, where the Beatles also walked gave me goosebumps. Thinking about it still does. Hubby photographed me next to an official Penny Lane sign and I photographed him next to the Strawberry Fields gate.
  • Walking around the Scottish Isle of Mull where some of my ancestors came from is almost too intense to describe. Chalk it up to  imagination but I felt a sense of belonging in a place I had never seen before.
  • Imagine the courage of people who cannot walk. I like to think that actor Christopher Reeves and Scientist Stephen Hawking stood up and started walking and then running and then maybe even flying after they passed away.
  • Life is full of the unexpected. The best you can do is walk forward and see what will happen next. Whatever it turns out to be you will most likely learn something and learning is good, so start walking.

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Thank you Mr. Bach

Author Richard Bach has written an amazing collection of novels and short stories. He is probably best known for Jonathon Livingston Seagull written in 1970. Another favorite of mine is Illusions, The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah written in 1977. For me, these books were not only delightful reads, the philosophy expressed in them was life-changing. For those who do not like long books – they are short! Check them out if you are curious.

Richard wrote: “Argue for your limitations and they are yours.” What does this mean? Sounds weird. I remember many a school assignment, where the assignment looked like the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. I did not even have any snow boots let alone know how to climb to 29,029 feet. “This is too hard,” I thought. “I can’t possibly get this done.”

Mount Everest is not climbed in a day. It is climbed in many steps over many days and there are lots of books written by people who did. A wonderful one is titled Facing Up, The Kid Who Climbed Everest by Bear Grylls that describes all those grueling steps.

One might wonder why anyone would want to do something that is grueling and painful. But I am not suggesting that you go climb a mountain unless you really want to. What I am suggesting is that you consider approaching a task that is new and that looks difficult with an attitude that it is possible!

Why start by arguing for your limitations – starting with the premise that: I can’t. It is too hard. Why not argue for your possibilities starting with the premise that: I can. I can figure this out. 

I remember an adult ice skating class that began with all of us clinging desperately to a railing at the edge of the rink, all of us terrified of letting go. The instructor showed us a simple way to stand and take that first step. Wonder of wonders, all of us glided across the ice and no one fell.

I remember a gigantic reading assignment and wondering how I would get it done in what seemed to be a ridiculously short time to read it. Mom suggested I check how many pages there were and divide that number by the number of days I had to read it. DUH. Suddenly that reading assignment was obviously possible.

I love horses and as a kid I wanted to draw them. I found out that drawing horses was difficult. I drew picture after picture after picture and they were all awful. I knew that something was wrong but I did not know what it was and there was no one to ask. But I wanted to draw a horse so badly that I kept drawing. One day, wonder of wonders, I did it.  Remember that kids’ story The Little Engine That Could? It was written in 1930 and taught the benefits of optimism and hard work. I think I can. I think I can. I was determined and I could.

Optimism and practice WORK! They are a recipe for success. But there is another aspect of this recipe and that is desire. No amount of practice is going to get you anywhere if you don’t want to do what you are faced with doing. If you have enough desire, what is grueling and painful becomes something to conquer and accomplish. To conquer, learn and accomplish things feels really good!

I could not be an art teacher if I did not believe that I could teach people to draw. And I’ve done it many times, giving others something fun to do that, if they choose, they can do for a lifetime.

Richard Bach spoke of that old saying: I’ll believe it when I see it. Then he turned it around: you’ll see it when you believe it.

Thank you Mr. Bach.

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