October – rivers of air


            True Story, Fall 2007

Three hundred nudes, they did the Mifflin run

More fans than when he won cross country States

Not for cancer, not for hope – just for fun

It was a crazy night with his classmates.


Sometimes, you know, a man gets way too tight,

Crashes his car, but gets a second chance.

Sometimes a good dad sitting at a light

Never guesses that this is his last dance.


He won this silly, funny, goofy race

Then campus cops, four wannabees, attacked.

They clubbed his arms, his legs, and cut his face.

They beat him bloody, sprained his hips and back.


In ancient Greece, he would have been the rage.

In State College, they put him in a cage.







A former caterpillar


      Not all change is good.  For example, a change that results in you being naked in the parking lot outside of the building where you used to work is probably not a good change.  However, change is usually interesting.

      I noticed that the Goldfinches are still in my yard, after being gone from late June until the end of August.  They are sporting their most brilliant yellow plumage.  According to my field guide, these finches are present year round in Pennsylvania and are local migrants, so where did they go during the hot part of the summer?  I had thought that they were up in central New York where the Goldfinch was my favorite summer bird while I was growing up in the Mohawk Valley.  Probably that’s wrong.  The experts from my bird walks speculate that in the Pennsylvania summers, these finches are going back into the woods and fields to nest and only come back to my feeders as the food starts to run out.  Also many of the bright yellow birds are first years.  What they think I might have been witnessing in central NY in the fall was the birds leaving the snow belt that runs through the center of the state for the less harsh conditions just a little south where they would have an easier time getting winter food.  Also these birds dramatically change color in November, so I may have been looking at drab, little winter birds and not realizing that these olive-colored winter denizens were Goldfinches.  Although NY and PA birders may have varying opinions on this, I’d be willing to wage five bucks that nobody actually studied this question.

      I would have lost that bet!   After writing the last paragraph, I googled “Goldfinch migration” and found that they migrate up into Canada during summer and as far south as Mexico in the winter.  They are year round residents in most of the U. S., including all of NY and PA, moving generally southward to find seeds in the winter.

      Also back in my yard are increasing numbers of Mourning Doves, now at six.  I really like these gentle birds.  I was surprised that one of the birders in the Exton Park group had grown up in New York and had a flock of Mourning Doves that roosted in the White Pines in her backyard.  She finds their gentle cooing nostalgic for her youth, like I do.  One of the other birders in the same group likes Mourning Doves for an entirely different reason.  She noted that they make excellent food for hawks.

      Hawks are another group of fall birds that I have seen in decent numbers in Chester County this October.  Now that I am a little better at identifying them, I can usually tell them apart.  There are quite a few Redtails, but also a fair number of Coopers.  There are Sharp-shins and for a few weeks there were a lot of Kestrels.  We’ve also had some special visitors migrating through my neighborhood.  But before I get to that, I want to tell you about my second trip to Hawk Mountain.


10/12 – Hawk Mountain

Rachel, Mike, and I spent a Saturday on the mountain, while Chris took care of Eddie and Beans at home.  The weather was bright and sunny – unseasonably warm – with just a little bit of a westerly wind.  So it was a wonderful day to be outside, but not especially good for seeing the hawk migration.  But it was the day we had, so we went for it.

      At North Lookout, we arrived in time to see the last few individuals from a flock of twenty-four Black-throated Green Warblers.  Two of them were poking around in the bushes behind the lookout, so we got clear looks at them without needing binoculars.  It was pretty slow going at first, but we did see about a dozen Sharpies and a few Coopers before Mike and Rachel decided to hike one of the trails.  While they were gone, it got so hot (probably in the middle eighties) that I wiggled my way into a small shady spot just below the official counters.  I saw several flocks of Blue Jays fly through and a probable Red-headed Woodpecker.  I wasn’t really sure on that last bird because even though he had the woodpecker up and down flight and the black and white pattern of the Red-headed Wood Pecker, I didn’t see a red head.  So I won’t count that guy.  There were some Red-tails, more Coopers, and one or two Merlins.  The neat thing about this day of hawk watching was that the birds were catching thermals, riding them in lazy circles until they went out of sight into some very high cloud cover.  Eventually we would see them reappear out of the clouds and coast over the ridge to the south and east.  The two hikers got back about one o’clock, just when a Sharp-shin was flying straight across from the ridge to the lookout.  Rachel and Mike got to watch him fly up to our spot, then catch a thermal near us and ride it up to the top of the thermal.  Then he coasted across the mountaintop and out of site to the south.  It took him about ten minutes, and it seemed a very slow and leisurely flight, but as he passed out of the range of my binoculars, we had watched him travel five miles.  I know this because the counters told me that the mountain he was disappearing over was 4.5 miles from North Lookout.  So the hawk was traveling at a pace of thirty miles per hour on a mildly windy day.  That’s impressive.

Restaurant recommendation:  There are lots of places listed in a pamphlet I picked up titled “Dining, Lodging, and Attractions in the Hawk Mountain Area”.  The spot we ate at is in the pamphlet and was recommended to us by one of the Hawk Mountain volunteers.  It’s the Port Clinton Hotel on Route 61 in the little town of Port Clinton.  This is a popular spot for hikers coming off the Appalachian Trail.  It is also close to Cabella’s in Hamburg.  I got a Hawk Mountain Sandwich (breaded chicken, blue cheese, and provolone) and Mike got the Appalachian Trail (16 ounce Delmonico steak on a long roll).   Both were huge and delicious.  Rachel said that her more ordinary-sized Port Clinton Burger was also good.  Their phone number is 610-562-3354.


Black Vulture on the North Lookout, Hawk Mountain, PA, October, 2013



10/20 – rivers of air

Chris and I took Beans for a walk in our neighborhood and we saw a Sharpie right away.  Then a little farther on, we saw another hawk, probably a Coopers, attacking a robin-sized bird, probably a Robin.  The Robin looked like he was a goner, but kept ducking and diving (two of the five “D’s of dodge ball).  The hawk was right on his target several times and looked like he was about to punch it with his talons, only to have the Robin dip out of his reach.  The Robin got away.  Coming back home, we saw two raptors that had medium-sized slender bodies and extremely long wings.  On their glides, the wings were proportionately thinner back to front than the other hawks we had been seeing.  The tips were feathered.  These were clearly Harriers and they surprised the heck out of us.

      I went into the house, but after thinking about it for a minute, went right back outside.  We live on top of a big hill and the fall winds blow consistently on the ground always to the northeast.  I know this because these winds blow a good amount of leaves into my yard on one end and back out the other end.  I still have a pretty good leaf cleanup task every year, but the consistent winds cut that down some.  So I was thinking about the wind and the hill and the four raptors that I had already seen, as I stood on my lower driveway.  I saw five small falcons, flying away to the southwest.  Those were most likely to have been Merlins.  Rachel drove in from her weekend job, and together we watched a Sharp-shin fly up over our neighbor’s yard.  “He’s got a thermal!” Rachel commented.  Over the next half hour, from the end of my driveway and from the road a few houses away from my house, I saw four Turkey Vultures, two unidentified Buteos, a Black Vulture, two Redtails, and fifteen Blue Jays.  All were flying straight south which was against the strong wind that was blowing all around me.  The two Redtails, who came in very low and straight up my road, were working especially hard against the wind.  Those birds made me realize that all the other birds had been soaring.  Soaring against the wind makes no sense.

      Hot air balloons come over our hill a lot in the summer.  They seem to usually come from the west, go past our house a little, and then turn to the south.  Sometimes they turn a little early and float right over our house.  How do they turn?  I assumed that the pilots know about local wind patterns, but never thought about the fact that the balloons (and today the hawks) were traveling in the opposite direction of the wind on the ground.  I found an article on the internet titled “How Hot Air Balloons Work” by Tom Harris.  In it, he points out that the wind currents travel in opposite (or different) directions at different altitudes.  So even though a balloonist’s only control is to raise or lower the height of the balloon by adding or releasing hot air, he can actually control the horizontal direction of the balloon by catching different wind currents.  He can also control the balloon’s speed by going higher, where the wind currents are faster.  So even though the winds on the ground were strong and northeasterly, the hawks were going over my hill catching strong southwest currents.  I had a completely unspoiled view in two directions in a cloudless sky.  Seeing some of the birds come in from the north and disappear to the south took roughly ten minutes.  Judging that I can just barely see a large hawk about five miles away with my binoculars, they traveled about ten miles in ten minutes, so they were floating along at sixty miles per hour on rivers of air! 


My October Surprise

Sometimes a political official, let’s say hypothetically the president of a large North American nation, who is up for re-election in November, is fortunate to have some event pop up that makes him look good.  If that event happens conveniently just before the election, the opposition calls it an “October Surprise” and accuses the incumbent of deliberately manipulating the event for his political advantage.  I think that this is callous on the part of the opposition, not because they are wrong, but because that is exactly what they will also do, if they get the chance.

      I had a different kind of surprise this October.  On one of the chestnut harvesting sessions at Tyler, we had been talking about invasive organisms wiping out other types of trees besides the chestnuts.  One of the volunteers commented that he had been reading the book “1493” and was surprised to find out from the book that earthworms are an invasive species to North America.  So thinking that this book was about invasive species (and in a very broad sense, it is), I asked him if there were other species that were mentioned in the book as invasive that were surprising.  He said “not really”, so I got a copy of the book written by Charles C. Mann to search through it myself.  This turned out to be a case of looking for hawks and finding bitterns (definitely an analogy).  I opened the book looking for a list of invasive species and got something entirely different.

      The thesis of the book is that prior to Columbus’ initial voyage to America, the human civilizations and the ecosystems of the natural world were divided into isolated regions.  Columbus’ voyage launched a process of globalization that has caused the entire earth to be increasingly and continuously morphed into linked and sometimes integrated systems, moving towards a single ecosystem.  The results include South American plants like the tomato, potato, and yam as key food products in Italy, Ireland, and Southeast Asia.  Invaders have hitched rides on ships and spread from one continent to another and one isolated watershed to another with sometimes devastating consequences to the receiving ecosystem.  That isn’t new thought.  What is new is the phenomenal depth of this chronicle of globalization, the view of globalization as a flow of species in all directions in the biosphere as opposed to an invasion of the New World by the Old World, and a more accurate historical treatment of the human activity involved, with the result of a sweeping revision to what we thought we knew about our history.  It’s a thousand page epic, but here is a paragraph, paraphrased from several chapters of this source, that will synopsize the process that brought me to my October surprise.  (F23.)

       Humans first started eating sugar in New Guinea ten thousand years ago.  By 5000 years ago, the practice had spread into parts of Asia, including India.  When the Arab Muslims invaded Persia, they were introduced to sugar and loved it.  They brought sugar cane to Africa where they engaged in large scale production of the product with the large scale utilization of slave labor, an established practice at this time and place.  During the Crusades, Europeans picked up a lot of concepts and products from their relatively more culturally advanced enemies.  One of the behaviors they adopted was a craving for this tasty drug.  Locked out of the principal sources of sugar by their wars against the principal producers of sugar, European rulers launched their exploratory quests partly to find new places where they could grow and process sugar cane.  Columbus had sugar cane plants on his ship.  The Caribbean became Europe’s sugar source and the necessity for slave labor to produce it shaped much of the following human history in the Western Hemisphere.

      Among the invaders coming to the Americas was the microbe that causes malaria.  Already in America were species of mosquitoes that were excellent hosts for the malaria germs.  All it took were a few Africans infected with malaria to get the process started and very quickly malaria became endemic to the regions that were good for growing cane.  Malaria is like measles in that if a human gets infected as a child, he usually gets a milder form of the disease, survives, and is immune to the disease for the rest of his life.  More importantly, there are modifications in the genetic structure in the red blood cells of many West Africans that make them resistant to the way the malaria organism attacks.  Adult Africans were generally immune, while Europeans and native American Indians were almost all completely susceptible to the disease.  Since only the Africans could survive working on sugar plantations, the plantations were populated almost exclusively by African workers, including many of the bosses and sometimes even the plantation manager.  Many blacks could and did escape to set up their own settlements, sometimes surprisingly close to the established European colonies.  Because of malaria, no large scale, successful European migrations to the Americas occurred until the middle of the 1800s.  So the initial wave of human migration to the Americas, a period of several hundred years, was predominately done by black people. 

      Another surprise to me was that pre-Columbian America was not an unpopulated wilderness.  It had a large, well-organized agricultural society.  In “1493”, the author goes through the evidence that supports this and explains why the European settlers reported this incorrectly.  First was that disease arrived with the initial colonization attempts and immediately devastated the native populations.  The follow-on attempts at colonization found previously well-populated, bountiful regions, with 80% of the previous inhabitants dead and the survivors reeling from the devastation.  Another key reason for getting it wrong was the organization of the cultivated land.  In Europe, all the farmland was fenced to keep out or in the large farm animals.  The fields inside the fences were planted with a single food crop.  Without large domesticated animals to help with the work in America, there was no need to fence settled land.  The planting techniques were also very different with multiple crops planted together, including fruit trees, berry bushes, and smaller plants like maize and sweet potatoes.  The author shows photographs of what this looks like on a riverside farm where the land owners selected and cultivated every single tree, bush, and plant on land that had been previously stripped by exploiters stealing palm tree hearts to sell for expensive salads in modern European and U. S. cities.  The farm looks like a jungle.  Without fences and without monoculture, Europeans would have assumed that cultivated land was just unclaimed wilderness and that the farmers who were harvesting their crops were gathering wild foods.

      So here is my “October surprise”.  My elementary education and all my subsequent world view taught and reinforced that the colonization of the Americas was predominately an activity where intrepid white explorers and freedom seekers left over-populated Europe to carve out new lives in the dangerous and empty wilderness of the New World.  There are many historical documents that support parts of this view and omit the contradictions.  There were exaggerations that got in to the historical record similar to a modern day manager reporting to his senior managers that “a few hundred packages” were delivered late, rather than pulling a report that showed 1563 packages were late.  More importantly, the cultural bias of the on-the-spot reporters made their reports less reliable than the analysis of some historians who were centuries removed from the events.  I was surprised to find that some basic ideas about my world that I took as just plain obvious are very likely just plain wrong.  This means that the reams of paper printed about our cherished Revolutionary War and our Founding Fathers might be distorted.  Ya think?!  Manifest Destiny, the Mexican silver trade with China during the Spanish colonial period, the Panama Canal, the transcontinental railroad …  Is the historical record completely riddled with bias, exaggeration, and propaganda?   Of course it is.   You probably think that I am naïve to be so surprised at what is so intellectually obvious.  It is more the scope of the inaccuracy that knocked me off my feet and also that the “revision” of history is to what I considered to be the foundation of my society, meaning that everything that comes after needs to be reexamined.  For example, I have earlier questioned what insanity gripped Americans in the late 1800s to go from being reasonable stewards of their land to exterminating much of their wild life and destroying their wild lands.  Now I’m thinking that the most likely explanation is that large waves of recent European immigrants penetrated into central North America for the first time and behaved exactly like they had been behaving for centuries in their previous homes.  These people had rarely been land owners and saw land as dirt to grow crops in.  As soon as they could get a railroad spur into a forest, they cut it down, sawed up the trees, and sold the wood.  They have a human-centric view of the world that is so distorted and destructive that it is hard to know where to begin in criticizing it.  Yet it is also the same view and behavior that has resulted in the spread of our species around the planet thousands of years ago and the reinvasion of these regions starting in 1492.

      Before leaving this topic, I’ll give the closing thought to George, the leader of the Exton Park walks.  He defines invasive species as those that “have an insidious reproductive strategy” that allows them to damage the invaded ecosystem.  He explained that opinion as he angrily ripped Mile-a-Minute vines off of trees in Exton Park.  That particular plant has a seven year reproductive cycle, so seeds dropped by a plant can remain viable for up to seven years after the original plant is removed.  That’s insidious, if you don’t like Mile-a-Minute.  George brought up the Cowbird.  Following buffalo herds and dropping off eggs in a wide region that the herd moves through is totally different than staying in one region and dropping eggs into the same birds’ nests over and over.  Eventually the hosts in the region will be overwhelmed by this reproductive strategy – bad for the hosts, also bad for the Cowbirds.  To my knee jerk observation that by his definition humans are invasive, George responded, “Some are.  Some are not.”  That’s worthy of additional thought.


10/26 – Stroud Preserve

The Cape May Bird Observatory and the New Jersey Audubon Society are having a bang-up birding festival this weekend.  Chris made hotel reservations well in advance, but as the festival approached, I backed out.  It isn’t possible to spend too much time in Cape May, but my four trips there in September got me to some of the sites featured among the festival activities.  At work, I had been spending the entire month of October in design meetings for the next release of our software product, and I was feeling the drain from that.  When it came time to send in my deposit for a day at the festival, I just didn’t feel like it.  I had planned for a really interesting write-up about the festival to go right here in this book, and I’m sorry that I wimped out on it.  Next year I plan to go for the day, no dogs, no luxury hotel, just hard core birding.  And I hope to be armed with a better camera by then to help record what I see.

      Kathryn came in for a long weekend and Rachel and Mike joined us, so Chris cooked up some amazing gourmet meals.  It was like Thanksgiving weekend, except better.  Kathryn, Chris, and I took Beans for a walk at Stroud Preserve to close out the fall birding season.  There were not many birds there, but we did see a few hawks fly over.  We took the red trail that goes around the outside edges of the preserve and walked the edge of the field where the Bobolinks had been nesting.  There is no reason to think that they won’t be back here next year and no reason to think that we won’t be here to see them.  That’s one face of change, the face that seems to be always the same because it keeps coming back.  We don’t understand time and place.  We can measure them accurately and show up together at some future time and place, but those measurements are always relative to a different time and place.  They hint about time and place, but don’t reveal what they are.  They flow.  We pass through time and place and flow with it.




Last bird of the fall season, Stroud Preserve, 10/26/2013