Black-bodied Redbird, Longwood Gardens


6/1 - "What's in a name?"

    A lot of the birding game is spent in the identification of a bird by its subtle visual characteristics, by its sounds, and by its behaviors.  That isn't the whole game.  It is really only the first step.  It is probably a little silly.  After all, the bird at Longwood Gardens that wasn't a Meadowlark was doing a perfectly good job of being an Orchard Oriole.  If I called him something else, it wouldn't matter to him or do him any harm.  Or harm us either.  Not entirely true, says Lynn Margulis in "Symbiotic Planet [A New View of Evolution]" (Sciencewriters, Amherst, Mass.  Basic Books, 1998, page 68) .  "We tend to label and dismiss anything once we assign it a category.  Our classifications blind us to the wildness of natural organization by supplying conceptual boxes to fit our preconceived ideas.  They should reflect our study of nature."

    Concentrating too rigorously on a name, which is very natural human behavior, can lead to a stifling of an experience.  The exercise becomes entirely intellectual as the experience is identified, catalogued, and filed in long term memory for reuse in subsequent identification exercises.  The participant becomes an observer and probably not a very good observer either, since potentially he is casting about for the next unidentified subject. 

    Lynn Margulis was pointing out that ill-considered names, or names based on outmoded ideas, can thwart creative thinking and lock a thinker into the status quo.  This is probably not a huge deal when talking about bird watching, but it is a very huge deal when that behavior is carried over to our core beliefs -- which it almost always is!  Whether we think of ourselves or others as believers in God or atheists or something in between; as one political label or another;  as a member of a profession; as a partner in a relationship -- we tend to limit that experience to what we have defined the pertinent labels to mean.  This may have the unintended effect to shut out the possibility of changing in any substantive way behaviors related to that label.  Taking religious faith as one example, whether a person is a committed believer in God or the type of scientist who knows for sure that there is no God (which is also an act of faith, of course), to be able to hold those convictions strongly gives great strength and comfort.  That is an absolutely good thing for both types of believers.  The only danger that I see here is that both may allow their faiths to stop them from thinking.  Their learning may just be an accumulation of additional material to support their current core ideas.  They could be missing out on some of the fun.


6/4 - Thursday bird walk at Exton Park.

We saw:

      Red-winged Blackbird (many), Yellow Warbler (many), Cedar Waxwing (about twenty, which is a big number for this location), Rough-winged and Tree Swallows (many), Great Blue Herons (2), Bluebird, Robin, Cardinal, Cowbird, Crow, Starling, Baltimore Oriole (about a dozen), Mourning Dove, Turkey Vulture, Coopers Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Chimney Swift, Common Yellowthroat, Goldfinch, Flicker, Indigo Bunting.


Cedar Waxing, Exton Park, June 2015



6/5Saved a dragon fly.  I found this guy trapped in my screened back porch and saved him by using my cap as a net.   He was unharmed and rested on some Hosta leaves for a bit before flying away. 


Dragonfly, Exton, PA, June, 2015


6/8 - Bridal Path Trail.  Weather permitting.

    It was sunny, but very comfortable for a walk.  The trailhead was not that hard to find, although not marked particularly well.  It is a horseback riding trail, so it is very wide and well-packed for easy walking.   There is a pleasant stream bordering the trail, which may afford a pleasant place to sit and stay cool along the water in the summer months ahead.   There are a lot of birds in the woods along the trail.   They are easily heard, but not easily seen.  There is so much cover that we only got occasional glimpses of our feathered friends.   In one clearing we saw a male Orchard Oriole with his deep-orangey color and a White-breasted Nuthatch.   On the way out we got a good look at a Red-tailed Hawk soaring against a now-blue sky.  The trail is heavily lined with tall trees and where you can look deep between their trunks, "The woods is lovely, dark and deep".  I repeated this Robert Frost line several times along Bridal Path Trail.  Notwithstanding my two poems in the May chapter of this journal, I really do like Frost.  Hey, if he can't take a joke, then...

    Although we couldn't see any warblers, we could hear lots of them.  The two people who told me about this trail had said that "there are lots of warblers" and "any time of year, it's good for warblers".   They did not indicate that you can actually see them.   Both of these women are excellent birders and excellent at identifying bird sounds.  I doubt that they make a big distinction between experiencing the bird by sound or by sight.   At this point, for me, my world is strictly visual, so my experience was limited to a series of unidentified whistles.   It was nice.


6/12 - Quotes of the Day - from previous centuries about our century.

    From the "Geography of Nowhere:  The Rise and Fall of America's Man-made Landscape" by the doomsday writer and still blogging James Howard Kunstler, written in 1993, at the end of chapter five:  "Worshipping the machine and industrial methods as ends in themselves, they became servants of an economy that plundered the future in order to power the engines of production and consumption for the present."  Don't bother rereading it to figure out who "they" refers to, or if it is true/false/biased/jargon, or if it is just a collection of noises that sound nice when strung together (like unidentified warbler whistlers).  I could have chosen lots of sentences from this popular book that apparently has been used in colleges as a text in curricula for architects.  I thought this sentence has some style and builds up nicely to the punctuation mark.   Here is his prediction:  "... Suburbia has three likely destinies, none mutually exclusive:  slums, salvage, and ruins."   Oh, and have a nice day!

    Kunstler hates cars and thinks we all want to live in cute little towns with sidewalks where we can spend our summer evenings chatting with our neighbors.  He predicted psychological gloom and societal breakdown as we live out our dreary lives in the emotional voids called suburbs.  Now that more than half of Americans live in suburbs, he could retitle his book "The Geography of Now Here".  He would only need to add an additional blank character to the original name, which makes it seem that my suggestion is really not adding anything -- and that would be accurate.  It is clear that the current crop of twenty and thirty year olds, who are the first large group to be brought up in the suburbs by parents who themselves were brought up in the suburbs, will be different kinds of people and will make different life choices.  Maybe they will gentrify some cities, maybe some will stay in the suburbs, yeah, yeah, yeah.

    The doomsday writer was making his comments at the end of the twentieth century.  A more positive spin comes from a really good writer from the nineteenth century, writing as if he knew us: 

    "...At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived in the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.  He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind.  He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society.  To him the nineteenth century would be on the same plane with the fourth -- equally childlike -- and he would wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much."  -- from "The Education of Henry Adams", by Henry Adams, chapter 34.


6/13Ignorance is not bliss.

     All through his book, Adams keeps emphasizing how ignorant he is.  This seemed absurd to me for most of the book and I originally thought it stank a bit of false modesty.  Obviously the guy was brilliant and was one of the best educated men to have ever lived.  But I really like him, having gotten to know him through his book, so I let it pass.  Now that I'm reading several biology/ecology texts, I don't think that he was being modest.  I think that the more he learned, the more he became aware of how much there is to know that he didn't know.  On this point, I am starting to catch up to him.  I'm hearing about stuff in Biology that has been discovered and discussed after my last Biology class in the 1970's.  It is shocking to me that I have missed out on so much.  In the pages of these books, I'm meeting people who are true naturalists and it is truly amazing what they can do -- like knowing all the calls of the more than 1300 Amazonian birds and identifying new species based on sound;  like studying the chemical changes at the Great Barrier Reef;  like combining their skill and knowledge of nature with political power to save natural treasures.  I'm smart enough to know that I'm not in that class of naturalists.

    Here's a golf analogy to show where I fit in as a naturalist.  There are pro-golfers who shoot below par;  top amateurs who shoot in the seventies; really good golfers who shoot in the eighties;  good golfers who shoot in the nineties;  players who are out for fun and don't break one hundred; and pretty bad golfers who shoot above 110.  All are golfers.  At the moment, I'm in that last group.  For naturalists, if there is a similar proficiency gradient, I would also be in the last group.  But just like I'm not letting lack of talent preventing me from doing golf, I'm persisting in naturalism.  Maybe I'll improve at both to graduate from "terrible" to "bad".  One can hope.


 Some cool experiments.

    Genetic changes are not necessarily adaptive, which contradicts theory of natural selection:

    An experiment with fruit flies from 1956, described in "What Darwin Got Wrong" by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, 2010, pp 57-59.  Fruit flies develop a second pair of wings on exposure to ether.  This heritable trait gives no obvious increased survival value.


    Acquired characteristics may be inheritable:

    An experiment by Tracy Sonneborn (1895-1970) where cilia of Paramecium were surgically removed and reattached in a reversed position.  Offspring for hundreds of generations retain the new position of the cilia.  This was described in "Symbiotic Planet" by Lynn Margulis, Basic Books, 1998, page 27.


Catching up on some stories that were playing out while I was coaching kids sports.

    These updates are from "The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, who reported the information as basic, well-known, and non-controversial.  The first topic was "what is killing the frogs?"  Last I remember, it was being proposed that depletion of the ozone layer might be the culprit.  Possibly the sensitive amphibian skin could not handle the increased levels of UV radiation.  The real killer turned out to be a new fungus from a group called chytrids.  Perhaps this story started to get less press because it no longer fits into the "global warming" or "climate change" political agendas.  However, humans are critically involved in the crisis by exacerbating the rapid spread of the pathogen.  Sadly this story has a very unhappy ending as many amphibian species have already become extinct in the wild.  Even the attempt to save species by breeding them in captivity may be pointless because the killer fungus remains in the environment.  Releasing newly bred frogs won't help.

    Another story was "what killed the dinosaurs?"  I remember that in the books about dinosaurs that Mike was reading twenty years ago, one possibility for extinction was "a big meteorite hitting the Earth".  In 1980, Luis and Walter Alvarez published their findings of high levels of iridium in the layer of sediment that was deposited during the time of this mass extinction.  The additional evidence accumulated since then has made the meteorite theory of dinosaur extinction the orthodox and accepted view.

     Also described in detail in "The Sixth Extinction" is the massive die out of bats in the northeast U. S. over the last decade.  This is still going on with the "white-nose" fungus spreading to other regions.  The fungus was spread from Europe to North America by people visiting caves and appears to have been first seen in the commercially popular Howes Caverns in New York State.  The fungus irritates the bats and wakes them up during their hibernation.  The result is that they use up their stored energy and starve.  I remember this being discussed in a bird walk in 2013 when someone commented on how our current summer seemed to be really "buggy".  Last summer, we again saw bats regularly in our neighborhood and felt that there were less bugs.  I hope that this isn't just wishful thinking, but I fear that it is, and that the bats have a long road to become reestablished.

     I have to eat crow on the topic of ocean acidity.  In the June chapter of "Birds Eat Free", I made fun of the report by USA Today that "oceans are 30 per cent more acidic".  A year later, I find this exact statistic in "The Sixth Extinction" and although I don't see the backup documentation for the stat, it is clear from reading the chapter on oceans that there really is an increase in the acid content in the oceans.   Obviously this is an important ecological story.


6/17 - Being.

    I've been reading "Waking, Dreaming, Being" by Evan Thompson, which was recommended to me by my brother-in-law, Tom Costello.  So this section is Tom's fault.  Send any complaints directly to him.  The book is about the nature of self and consciousness as understood by Buddhism and Neuroscience.  I just finished chapter four. 

    Consciousness is a series of discrete observations made by a self-aware being about an object that is observable.  So consciousness requires an object, the ability to sense the object, and the ability to recognize the object and assign it some meaningful traits.  The conscious being is aware of himself in the way that a light illuminates itself.  This occurs when an organism that is sensitive to things in its environment notices that one of the things in the environment is actually itself -- although "self" may or may not be an "emotional distortion", the sense of self is experienced.  The discrete nature of moments of consciousness is important and it is supported by ancient Buddhist doctrine and recent Neuroscience experimentation.  The obvious question that follows is what is the nature of the moments that occur between the instances of consciousness.  Thompson explained that some Buddhists propose that there is a thing called subtle consciousness that exists independently of any physical phenomena, meaning not dependent on the brain.  Subtle consciousness occurs in the gaps between waking consciousness and also through the moments of waking consciousness, allowing the cohesive operation of self that seems inherent to conscious organisms.   Even though we sense the world like extremely fast cameras operating in burst mode, we seem to always be aware of ourselves,.  Buddhists believe that subtle consciousness persists after death and is absorbed in new life.  This is what they mean by rebirth, not the retention of self as a cohesive personality.

    When thinkers attempt to understand how consciousness came into being, an important concept is that the origin or cause of an event must be of the of the same nature as the result or effect.  For instance, it makes no sense to think that wind can be derived from rock because they are not the same kind of thing.  It is easy to see how ice can be derived from water or soil derived from dead plants.  Additionally, it seems to me that origin/cause does not have to be consciously observed by the event or even temporally synchronous to the event.  Here's what happened a few days ago.  I made some mouse clicks on a laptop and a foam neck pillow was delivered from the other side of the world to my front porch.  The maker of the pillow, as evidenced by a label on the pillow, is in China and not part of my sensory perception (although perhaps he is an object of my mental awareness).  He didn't really make the pillow in response to my mouse clicks, but made it in anticipation of the mouse clicks that I would make in his future.  This seems non-intuitive, but it is what happened.  Here's an even better example.  In my current Now, I am writing this sentence in anticipation of you reading it sometime in my current Future.  If you were not going to read this, I would not bother to write it down and type it into the Journal.  So what you are doing in your current Now is affecting something I did in your current Past.  Again, not at all intuitive, but accurate.

    Since Buddhists believe that consciousness and physical matter are of fundamentally different natures, consciousness cannot be derived from the physical universe.  Thompson explains and then rejects one answer to this puzzle.  He reports that the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Buddhist faith, has suggested that the question itself implies that Western science needs to adjust its ideas on the nature of matter.  Instead of thinking of matter as inert substance without consciousness that can be organized in complex ways to arrive at organisms with consciousness, matter should be considered to have consciousness as an inherent trait.  Thompson states that he rejects this because there is no evidence of the atom or subatomic particles "having experiences of their own".  I think that he was getting close to a really good idea and should have kept going with it.   

    Electrons change orbits around a nucleus and join the orbit of a nearby nucleus in order to create more stable orbits.  These are orbits which contain the maximum number of allowable electrons.  This propensity is a basis for the periodic table.  It shows that subatomic particles are sensitive to electromagnetic forces.  An even more familiar example is the heating of a gas in a container causes the gas to expand and potentially burst the container.  That happens because the always in motion molecules speed up as they get hotter.  So atoms are clearly sensitive to heat.  I said sensitive, not conscious.  But that, I think, is the first step.  Electromagnetic attraction results in the organization of atoms into molecules.  In a water molecule, the Oxygen atom shares the electrons in the Hydrogen atoms to stabilize its outermost electronic orbit.  The atomic number of Oxygen is 8, meaning it has eight protons and eight electrons.   The electrons are arranged as two in the inner orbit and six in the next outer orbit.   A stable number of electrons in the outer orbits of an atom is eight, so to achieve that an Oxygen atom shares one electron from each of two Hydrogen atoms.  It isn't necessary to continue to hypothesize a whole theory on the origin of life from complex molecules to bacteria to complex organisms to organisms that have the ability to sense themselves.  And the topic here is definitely not the ultimate origin of everything -- so where did atoms come from is not part of this discussion.  The point is that matter at the lowest level that we can currently perceive behaves with properties showing that it can interact with external stimuli and join in complex processes.  This is not consciousness but is perhaps the innate basis for the development of consciousness.

    It seems to me that the tipping point between an organism that is alive but not sentient and one that has what we call consciousness is the property of being self-aware.  Mammals behave in ways that make it seem to us that they are self-aware.  Birds, and reptiles -- probably.  Fish and insects -- maybe.  Plants -- probably not.  But I've read that some trees seem to mount a biological defense against an attacker and emit a chemical discharge that communicates to surrounding trees to begin their defense.  This seems to be perhaps beyond sensing light and water and perhaps sensing self ("I am being attacked") and other ("protect yourselves").  Clearly, not all living things have consciousness.  And also, I can imagine that it is possible for a being like an angel or an operating system (watch the movie "her", it is strange and fascinating) could have consciousness without being alive.

    So now I'm ready to put these ideas together in a way that makes sense to me personally.  I am accepting, without understanding its proof, the Western scientific principle that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  I believe that a reptile that lived millions of years ago and a person that lived a decade ago both existed and now no longer exist.  I know that while I have been writing this sentence many of the cells in my body have died and were replaced by new living cells.  Existence, whether perceived or not, is only for the briefest of moments, but it is continuous.  By the time that I have finished a moment of waking consciousness, the object of the observation no longer exists as it did.  In the gaps between moments of consciousness, I continue to exist.   But each and every moment, I die and I am reborn.  When a body loses the organization that allows it to support the complex activities that we call life, organs break down, senses stop working, soon after that the brain ceases to function, and the organism loses its ability to know itself.  But the essential matter of the organism persists.  All the atoms retain their structure and remain whole in the universe.  After millions of years, the atoms that were organized as a reptile are scattered into other entities, but all the atoms still exist.  In that sense, all of the reptile still exists.

    These thoughts provide me peace.  They allow me to patiently attack the last six chapters of Thompson's book and to persist in creating the current chapter of Me.  Right now that is as a wandering mendicant, who is living off his company buyout with health benefits provided by his wife and with most of the wandering done on neighborhood walks or at Honeybrook Golf Course.  It isn't as dramatic as Caine, the character played by David Carradine in Kung Fu.  I have not given away all my possessions and gone off to live in the desert.  My personal hero actually did something like that.  He is Larry from "The Razor's Edge" by W. Somerset Maugham.  Larry was under eighteen when he illegally enlisted in World War I and came back from that experience searching for more from life than a steady job and a nice house in the suburbs.  The love of his life was not suited for this search and left him to marry his best friend, Gray.  Larry sets out on a life of intellectual discovery and study of Western philosophy and Eastern mysticism to arrive at a peaceful understanding, in balance with the world.  Meanwhile, Gray gains, loses, and regains a fortune while living out his life with his lovely wife and charming daughters.  I've always wanted to be both Larry and Gray.  Clearly, I chose to be Gray and don't, even for an instant, regret this choice.  However, it is still good to feel vestiges of Larry still active in my life.   (Larry must be about 115 now -- Peter Baskan in a blog reports that Tibetan monks routinely live to 120 or more, with at least one unconfirmed report of a monk living to 175.)  Maybe after a while I'll venture out of my comfort zone, but at the moment this zone is working pretty well for me.  Next week, Chris and I are going to L. A. to visit Mike and Amanda (Mike's fiancé!!).  We are not walking cross-country and will be going by plane.  


6/19 - First State Monument and White Clay Creek.

    The Brandywine Creek State Park is along the Brandywine River and on the PA side of the state border.  A little upstream from that is a recreation area that wasn't marked with any signage two years ago, but now is designated as First State Monument.  The PA park is a good place to start a hike along a trail called the Greenway.  You get to it by going down Thompson's Bridge Road (see detailed directions in the May chapter of the "Birds Eat Free" text.  The turn off from route 202 is Route 92, Beaver Valley Road).  The area where there is great birding and you don't need to hike to get to it is at First State Monument.  Just stay on Ramsey's Road and you get right to it.  The spot where the road starts to run along the river is especially productive.  Continue a little past that to park for free in a big and well-maintained lot along the river. 

    Maybe we are having an invasion of Cedar Waxwings in southeast PA this spring or maybe it is just a really good year for them, but there were a lot at Exton Park and a real lot of them today at this spot on The Brandywine.  They were flying over the river with the swallows, catching bugs.  They are obviously very differently shaped, more brownish, bigger, and not quite as dynamic in flight as the swallows, but the waxwings were putting on a pretty good airshow by themselves.  The marker that makes it easy to spot them either in flight of perching is the bright yellow tips of their tails.   I noticed that after a short flight they would come back to the same perches over and over, so I sat down on a log, used manual focus to get a good view of an open stick that a few waxwings had landed on, and then I waited.  It took a while, but I was rewarded with some nice close up shots of this elegant bird.  Even though I showed a waxwing from Exton just a few weeks ago, I can't help myself from showing another waxwing picture.

Cedar Waxwing, Brandywine River, First State Monument, Delaware, June 2015


    While I was waiting for this waxwing to land on the stick, a big bird flapped about four feet over my head, coming from the brush behind me.  It was a Pileated Woodpecker.  He climbed up the side of a tree along the bank and gave me a very good silhouette of his fancy crest.  I heard him screaming deep in the brush a few times, put didn't see him again after that one brief glimpse.

    Here's two more pictures from a sunny morning along this beautiful river:


Not a bird, Brandywine River, June 2015


This isn't a bird either, Brandywine River, June 2015


White Clay Creek State Park, Delaware

    The weather has been either really hot and muggy or raining for the last couple weeks.   Today it is in the 70's and beautifully sunny.  No way am I going back home when my camera still has charge and my car still has gas.   I headed further south to try the Creek Road spot along White Clay Creek where I saw the Olive-sided Flycatcher two years ago.   There are lots of entrances and trailheads for this large and beautiful park.  Any of them are good and when I got lost and Google Maps directed me to the Possum Hill entrance, I took a brief walk there and saw a Brown Thrasher on the edge of a field, along with lots of Tree Swallows.   This seems to be a good year for swallows, which is good because one of the bird walk regulars told me that swallows have been having a hard time of it.   Then I found the Nature Center and parked there and took a long hike along the water.   On the Nature Center lawn, I saw a Wood Thrush and at the river bank very close to the start of the trailhead, I saw a hole in the bank.  I watched it for a few minutes and a bird came out.   For a half hour I tried to get pictures of the Bank Swallow feeding the two young birds inside the little cave.  There was only one nest, which I think is unusual for these communal birds.   The water in the creek was very high and fast and part of the trail was closed because of cave-ins along the bank.  So possibly the cave-ins may have stripped off other nests.  Swallows are so fast, both flying and just moving around in general, that I wasn't able to get any really clear shots.  When I came back at the end of my hike, she was still hard at work feeding the youngsters, but my camera battery was finally dead, signaling me that it was time to quit.  Here's what I did get:

Bank swallow, outside the nest, White Clay Creek, June 2015


Two baby Bank Swallows inside the nest, if you look really hard, White Clay Creek, June 2015


Bank Swallow catching insects and flying really fast, White Clay Creek, June 2015


    On the hike, I got really excited when I took a photo of a little warbler all bright blue on his back and head with a bright yellow chest.  Since this location is a breeding ground for Cerulean Warblers, I thought that maybe I had an out-of-focus souvenir of one of these brilliant birds.  But the Cerulean has a white breast.  I think that I may have taken a picture of a  Northern Parula, which is cool, but I was really hoping for a Cerulean.  Here's a picture that I took along the river today of a very common, but very happy bird.  It kind of captures what the day was like: 

Song Sparrow, White Clay Creek, June 2015



 6/22 thru 6/29 - Atwater Village, Los Angeles, California

    We are staying at an Air B&B that Mike found for us.  It is a nice room at a great price and the property owners are wonderful hosts, so I'll leave their number at the end of this trip report.  We are staying a block away from the apartment that Amanda and Mike are renting in a sleepy neighborhood in northeast LA.  It's beautiful here and in its quiet and simplicity, Atwater Village smashes every preconception of LA that I have held for decades.  It is not particularly hot; it is not smoggy; the people are not big-city aggressive or bleeding heart sociopath or Hollywood snobby.  Instead of being block after block of Crips fighting Bloods or Rodney Kings fighting the police or thoughtless developers destroying the environment, the neighborhoods are miles and miles of single or two story homes filled with quiet and polite and friendly people.  I remember reading about the Watts riots in the sixties, now chronicled in the Purifoy exhibit at LACMA as "the Watts Rebellion".  That's now a gentrified and reasonably safe neighborhood.   Same for Compton.   Amanda says that there are no really bad sections of LA like in some other big cities (northeast Philly, Baltimore, sections of Washington, East St. Louis, ...).   There are a lot of people here, spread out on a very large footprint.  They seem to make it work by obeying their rules - both rules that are official laws or regulations and those that are just accepted behaviors.   For example, loud talking and loud music are less prevalent.  In the neighborhood, cars aggressively wait for you to cross the street, rather than shoot out after a quick stop.  There are cars everywhere, but the streets are easy to walk on and the traffic is lighter than in my own PA suburban neighborhood.  No exaggeration. 

     I didn't want to travel with an extra bag on the plane, so I just brought the tiny Olympus SZ31 camera.  My pics from this week are using that camera.

Bottle brush flower on a tree in Mike and Amanda's neighborhood


    Why were my ideas about LA so distorted?  Although part of the reason is that LA changed while I wasn't paying attention, most of it is that the "news" is not reporting anything remotely close to reality.  Anything that supports the narrative of "big cities are dangerous, Californians are kooky, the west coast is crowded, expensive, hot, and parched" gets reported as a story.  People quietly building nice places to live in doesn't make an interesting story.

    On a Saturday morning ride along the LA River bike path between Glendale and Fletcher Blvds, we saw Great Blue Herons, Stilts, Mallards, Coots, Swallows, Phoebes and other birds hunting for food in a pretty river rampant with cattails, bamboo, and grasses.  At the downstream end of the bike path, I counted sixty Stilts feeding in the water below.  The birds weren't particularly bothered by the walkers of bikers, even when the walkers left the path and strolled along the edge of the river.  On the bike path, dozens of bikers carefully avoided buzzing each other by changing lanes and stopping to wait for each other as needed.  Lots of people were sharing the environment with each other and with the wildlife.  Ironically and sadly, the only negative notes in this symphony were the very few humans actually living in it full-time.  There were two homeless people who had set up there camp sites along the river and their huge piles of junk were out-of-tune with the rest of the score.  In a different time or place, this kind of person might be an adventurer and his waste products would be too insignificant to matter when discharged into the very big environment.  Here and now, he is the polluter and the local big-city people are the ones keeping the LA River clean and full of wild life, while advocating for a very large government project to enhance the river as a wild life and community resource.  This doesn't fit the old narrative that I've been carrying around in my head, but this is what I'm seeing this week.

    There is an interesting fence and gate decorating one of the Fletcher Boulevard accesses to the river.  I don't mean the Heron Gates, which are across the street.  This fence and gate is incorporating natural stones into the iron work.   Three and four foot high river rocks are built into the fence with waves of metal flowing over and around them.  Each metal post of the fence is capped with a round three inch river rock.  It is really pretty, creative, organic, appropriate and meaningful.  I like it a lot better than Tony Sullivan's huge metal beams at LACMA that he titled "Smoke".  When Mike and I rode past the fence on our bikes, I stopped to try to find the artist's name.   I didn't see who made it and Mike says this is a pretty common style in the region.  

    So my impression of LA is really positive.  Here's the bird sightings and other details of our trip:

Tuesday - Atwater Village.

   Phoebes (which are sparrow-sized mostly black birds, with white on their bellies, and crests.  Found only in this region but very common, especially in the neighborhoods and parks) and a possible Chestnut-sided Chickadee (which on further review was more likely a House Sparrow - darn!).


Griffith Observatory.  

    On top of a mountain in Griffith Park in LA near the eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains.  Built to bring the stars to scientists and science to the public.  It is fantastic at both.   We were there more than an hour before opening on a weekday and it was packed.   Mike dropped Chris and me off at the top of the mountain and drove part way back down to park.   By the time we left in the afternoon, the line to drive up extended all the way down the mountain.   Every exhibit was interesting and taught me something new.   Finding something new to teach me is really not too hard, since I am just as far behind in astronomy as I am in biology.  However, I think I could go back several times and still just scratch the surface of what the observatory can offer.

    Highlight one:   a very long corridor with one wall showing a 14 billion year time line for the Universe starting with the Big Bang and going up to now.   There were several cosmic events near the beginning, then an extremely long gap followed by more recent events, like the creation of Earth 5 billion years ago.  Relative to the age of our Universe, the emergence of bacteria on Earth about half a billion years ago is recent.

    The largest astronomical image every made:  this is on a big wall (150 feet long and 20 feet high) and captures the light from deep space in just a tiny section of the sky, a section that you can cover by just holding up two fingers.   The entire wall is covered with blips of light, some of which are single stars, but many are entire galaxies.  That's not a typo.  Many of the blips of light are galaxies.  Our modestly sized galaxy contains 100 to 200 BILLION stars.  Continuing to talk numbers, current estimates are that there are 100 to 200 BILLION galaxies in the Universe, but other projections suggest that the number of galaxies may be more than 500 billion.   The universe is unbelievably big.

    An amazing show projected on the interior roof of the Planetarium:   you can't call this a movie, it is too big for that.  This gives a history of our "knowledge" of the planets, stars, and the Universe.   For example, for the fifteen centuries before Copernicus, it was obvious that the Earth rotated around the sun and was the center of the Universe.  Until relatively recently, we thought that the Milky Way was the entire Universe.  The takeaway is that our current ideas will soon seem ridiculous.  Also, rocketing through space, inside the Planetarium, was pretty cool.

    They turned on a Tesla Coil:  this a machine developed by Nikola Tesla (the car is named after him) and patented by him in 1901.  When he died in 1943 the US government seized and buried his plans.  The purpose was to protect the electricity industry.   The Tesla generator works by harnessing radiant (static) electricity in the atmosphere and doesn't allow for a way to meter and charge for the service.   Currently you can get plans for Tesla generators free on the web, which shows a very different approach to handling knowledge.   The related big story is what Elon Musk is doing with the Tesla car.  Last year he gave away his patents to the public domain.   That was brilliant.   Now the electric car technology can't be suppressed any more.  A story on the web from yesterday says that GM is going to try to put Musk out of business by producing by 2017 its own mass market electric car with a 200 plus mile range and a $35,000 price tag.  This is exactly what Musk wanted.  He will still make enough money to get his billions of investment back and some profit to use for his next world-changing idea. But the point wasn't to make money.  His motivation was to use the money he has to do something worthwhile.  Musk has won.   He has changed the world.   The electric car technology will be the only car technology by 2020.

Tesla Coil, Griffith Observatory, LA


Wednesday - Griffith Park.

    This is not the biggest city park in America.   It's not even the biggest in California - San Diego has the biggest.  Overall it ranks number eleven for size.  At over 4000 acres it is bigger and wilder than New York's Central Park.  Although both parks have coyotes, Central Park doesn't have any mountain lions and Griffith Park does have a few.   That's just an example.

    We walked at the old Bird Sanctuary and the old zoo.  These abandoned sites are in small canyons and are full of bird, plant, and animal life.  Chris spotted a coyote.  We saw lots of hummingbirds, including Allen's and Black-chinned and possibly Costa's.   I saw two life birds - Spotted Towhee and California Towhee - and would have done better if I had brought my Nikon.  The Olympus did good enough for these pics, but I kept hitting the movie button, instead of the still photo button.  So I lost a few of the still shots.   We also saw California Thrashers, Scrub Jays, Bushtits, and lots of Acorn Woodpeckers.  There were lots of Purple Finches and House Finches, yellow unidentified warblers, a warbler-sized bird with red on its neck, and Pacific Slope Flycatchers.

Spotted Towhee, Griffith Park, LA, June 2015

    Mike had parked in a lot near the Merry-Go-Round.   As we were getting in the car, Chris spotted a huge bird perched on a light pole.  We got close enough to see that it was generally brown and it was too big to be a hawk, so I identified it as a Golden Eagle.  After Mike and I followed it and got pictures of it from different angles, I saw that it had a red-tail and a whitish streaked breast.   Golden Eagle is dark brown all over.   So this bird was a really, really big Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk, Griffith Park, LA, June 2015


Me at the old zoo.


Thursday - LA River.

    Phoebe, Great Blue Heron, finches, small brown birds, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Pied-billed Grebes catching fish, Mallards, Coots.

Black-necked Stilt, LA River, June 2015

   On the walk home on Larga Avenue, I saw some Eurasian-collared Doves.  I thought I saw them in Santa Monica last fall, but now I'm sure.   So their range has extended this far. 

Eurasian-collared Dove, northeast LA, June 2015


The weekend - saw some of the sites.

La Brea Tarpits - smells like tar and sulfur with gas bubbles emerging in lagoons and tar oozing up onto the dry ground.  Got to see an active dinosaur dig where the most frequent finding was Saber Tooth Tigers.

LACMA - very cool modern art exhibits, especially those featuring local artists.  Mike and I liked a picture that at first looked like a white piece of poster board pinned to the wall.  On closer examination it was lightly colored with green pencil with a clear white edge that looked like a mat.   So the picture was self-matted with no frame or glass covering to interfere with the viewer and an appropriate use of the title "Untitled".  Chris liked a "portrait" that was done by writing words on paper to indicate where the body parts would go - like "chin", "eyebrow", "lips".   The best exhibit for me was the photographs by Larry Sullivan.  Paraphrasing him, "A good photograph shows a mysterious creature that got into my room.  How did you get here?  What are you made of?"  I intend to work on that.  I also liked the display of his work called "Evidence" which basically mocks the use of photographs to prove stuff.  I ask myself what my bird photos are evidence of - that the bird exists? - that I saw it? - that because I saw it, then I must exist? - that it's pretty? - that I put the correct label on it? - .... ???   It makes me think that sometimes both art and photography have a lot in common with collecting baseball cards - and that sometimes it doesn't.

A cloud over Burbank - typically in southern California, an interesting cloud would be cinematographic, a multicolored feather above a splash of lime green.

Burbank cloud, June 2015, taken by Mike Gadbow on his Samsung Galaxy S5 cell phone


Cinema - visited Universal City on Friday night, which was a lot of fun.   Saw Jurassic World the way it was intended to be shown -  on IMAX 3D on the biggest screen at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.  Go Tyranosaurus Rex!

The real purpose of our trip - was not to bird watch or sight see.  It was for Chris to meet Amanda and for Chris and me to meet her mom, Chichi.  They are both wonderful ladies and we are so glad to be a part of their world and to have them in ours.  Here's a pic of the five of us that Amanda took with her Canon and a remote shutter, using a ridiculously good Sigma wide angle lens. 

Friends, June 2015, by the future Amanda Gadbow