Woodpeckers are popping out of eggs all over the place here at Hastings. With the breeding season in full swing, it's rare to get a day off, and even rarer to get the same day off as someone else. Robin (my fellow Acorn Woodpecker tech) and I somehow managed to swing it one day last month, and we drove down to Big Sur. Here we are in a fallen redwood tree.
Big Sur is a region of the central California coast known for its spectacular views and state parks. Robin is familiar with the area after working there a few years ago on a California Condor conservation project. Her work involved hauling frozen dead cows up mountainsides to feed to the birds, as well as radio telemetry to track specific individuals.
California Condors, members of the vulture family, are huge, ancient birds. They were around when wooly mammoths roamed the earth, and they're still around today, but they're in trouble. Their populations have been declining for centuries, and they became extinct in the wild in the late 20th century. Through captive breeding programs, condors have been reintroduced into parts of their former range (including this area of central California), but there are still only a few hundred California Condors living in the wild. They are scavengers, and among other things, they are at high risk for lead poisoning from ammunition left in the carcasses that they eat.
When I came to Hastings, the California Condor was one bird I was excited to see. They are more common south of Hastings (in Big Sur, for example), but I knew anything was possible. I lucked out one day while sitting in a blind right by the main office, watching an Acorn Woodpecker group. As I focused my scope on a dead tree nearby, I saw a large shape in the distance. It was too big for a Red-tailed Hawk, and as it glided closer over the hill, I could see that the undersides of its wings were partially white. Its primaries stuck out at the tips of its wings like feathers. It was the wrong shape for a Golden Eagle, the second large raptor that immediately sprang to my mind, and the color pattern was not right for a Turkey Vulture.
Then the bird flapped its enormous wings, only once, only downward, with no upstroke, and for the first time I got a sense of the sheer size of this creature I was watching. California Condors can have a wingspan of up to three meters (9.8 feet). That's almost twice my height (I'm 5'2").
I watched as the condor glided over the hill, crossed over the office, and then disappeared behind the trees on the other side. It made no sound that I could hear, but it was magnificent.
I was excited to see more condors in Big Sur, maybe at closer range. Unfortunately, although it was beautiful and sunny at Hastings the morning of our trip, the weather was quite different on the coast.
A dense fog covered the land, and sometimes we could barely see the water.
We met up with one of Robin's condor conservation friends at a roadside pullout and checked in. He had a portable radio antenna and was scanning the area for signals (as part of the condor conservation project, condors are radio-tagged so they can be individually identified and their movements monitored. Condors weren't moving much in the fog and chill, but one bird gave a steady signal, and he was close. We looked around, and after a little while we found him, perched 600 feet down on the rocks below us. Condors are huge birds, but he looked tiny.
Our day was relatively condor-less after that, but we took a hike through a redwood forest and had fun discovering lots of other nature-y things. I felt like a kid playing in the woods, especially when we found the huge fallen redwood tree that I mentioned before. Here's a picture that gives a better sense of the scale. I'm 5'2".
Really, there's nothing like hiking through a redwood forest to bring out your inner child, probably because it makes you feel so small.
We found flowers, bugs, and flowers with bugs in them.
We meandered through gorges, and despite the fog, we found a pretty view at the top of a mountain.
Somehow, even though we spend all day watching Acorn Woodpeckers, Robin and I still stopped to watch a group high up in the redwood forest. We were amazed that they made granaries in what is known to be a very hard wood. We were temporarily miffed that none of the birds seemed to be color-banded, unlike the ones at Hastings, but our attention was drawn pretty quickly by an active nest, parents and relatives flying all around and scrambling to feed the noisy chicks.
After our hike, we returned to the overlook for more condor-searching, but no birds were in the area, and the fog was just as dense as it had been earlier. We did see some other cool things off the coast, though, including my first looks at Pigeon Guillemots, and great views of passing dolphins and migrating Gray Whales.
After a lunch at a favorite restaurant of Robin's and a stop for groceries in town, it was time to head back home. Back to our very own misty hills, greedy woodpecker chicks, and gorgeous wildflowers at Hastings. Back to more tiny little natural marvels, like this Western Fence Lizard basking in dappled sunlight.
De gauche à droite: Frédéric (déguisé en femme), "Nina," Alexandra (déguisée en femme aux cheveux longs), moi, Pénélope (déguisée en Sévillane), et Dark Vador (qui porte un masque) / From left to right: Frédéric (dressed as a woman), "Nina," Alexandra (dressed as a woman with long hair), me, Pénélope (in her Sevillana dance outfit), and Darth Vader (wearing a mask).
Voilà un livre que j'ai trouvé dans une librairie à Rodez, qui s'entitule "Paris vs. New York." J'ai trouvé cette page très pertinente à cet hiver et celui de l'année dernière. Traduction grossière de la page en anglais: "hiver: le stationnement alterné est suspendu" / Here is a book that I found in a bookstore in Rodez, called "Paris vs. New York." I found this page especially relevant to this winter and last winter. Rough translation of the French page: "Winter: five centimeters and everyone panics"
Les enfants au Muséum de Toulouse. Nous n'avons pas visité l'exposition duquel s'agit ce panneau, mais il y avait trois trous, trois petites têtes... pas question de rater l'occasion de prendre une photo! / The kids at the Museum of Toulouse. We didn't visit the exhibit that this board refers to, but there were three holes and three little heads... we weren't going to miss the opportunity to take a photo!
À l'intérieur de la grange où habitent les chèvres. Il faisait assez chaud et il y avait une odeur agréable d'animaux et du foin. La journée, les propriétaires mettent la radio pour que les chèvres aient quelque chose à écouter, et pour qu'elles n'aient pas peur des humaines, ce que j'ai trouvé adorable / Inside the barn where the goats live. It was quite warm, and there was a pleasant odor of animals and hay. During the day, the owners leave the radio on so the goats have something to listen to, and so they won't be afraid of humans, which I thought was very sweet.
Le réservoir où coule le lait avant d'aller dans un plus grand réservoir derrière le mur. Le propriétaire nous a dit qu'à cette chèvrerie, on produit vers mille litres de lait par jour. On utilise le lait surtout pour fabriquer du fromage, mais Dark Vador a été permis d'en prendre un litre à boire à la maison. / The tank that the milk flows into, before going into a much larger tank behind the wall. The owner told us that at this goat farm, they produce around one thousand liters of milk per day. Most of that milk is used to make cheese, but Darth Vader was allowed to take home a liter to drink at home.
Pénélope, qui a voulu ranger sa chambre, en train de colorier des petites pancartes pour ses vêtements. Je lui avais écrit les mots en français et en anglais. / Pénélope, who wanted to organize her room, coloring some little signs for her clothes. I had written the words for her in French and in English.
Hey, guess what? This post is not about birds. It might make you hungry, though.
I've been learning a lot about birds here at Hawk Ridge. But this is also my first time living away from home, and a lot of my adventures are taking place not on the count platform but in the kitchen. Here are a few important pieces of context.
When I first got here, I was a little freaked out about cooking without a stove. Most of what I know how to cook involves an oven or boiling large pots of water or sautéing. I brought with me an adorable little recipe binder that I've been compiling for a while, only to realize that I couldn't make most of what was in it because of the limitations of the kitchen. We ate scrambled eggs my first night in Duluth, and I felt less hungry but no less stressed.
Now, after several weeks, zillions of trips to the grocery store, and many meals cooked, I'm much calmer and I am thoroughly enjoying cooking for myself. Here are some of the things I've cooked and lessons I've learned, with more to come in the future (hence, "Food, Part 1").
For breakfast: Orange juice, a banana, and oatmeal cooked for exactly two minutes in the microwave. This is exactly the right amount of time to pack a sandwich for lunch, meaning I can wake up at 5:45 instead of 5:43.
For lunch: A ham sandwich, another banana or an apple, and whatever veggies are around the house. Or: mini burritos. Or: dinner leftovers.
For dinner: something elaborate, or whatever's in the fridge, depending on my level of fatigue.
The first day after the spices arrived, I made couscous with vegetable stew.
Next up, black bean burritos. We had some peppers and tomatoes left over from the farmer's market, and half a jar of salsa sitting in the fridge. I cooked black beans with the salsa and some garlic sautéd in olive oil. By sheer coincidence, the 6" tortillas were on sale for a dollar at the grocery store. This was a quick and yummy dinner.
Until now, I had still been sticking to instructions; the couscous stew and the black beans were recipes from my mom. But now I decided to get creative. I bought some potatoes, and we had spices and olive oil. So this happened:
The trick is to cook the potatoes in the microwave first, then fry them in a little oil to crisp them up.
Ah, the microwave. This seems like a good time for an ode to the microwave. I never knew how much it could do. Steaming vegetables is easy: put the veggies in a large bowl, add half an inch of water, cover them, and cook until they're appropriately squishy. Rice can be cooked in the same way. I was surprised to learn that you can cook pasta in the microwave, but now I think I'll never go back. The pasta cooks in about seven minutes, without the water even boiling. I feel like all the time I've spent in my life boiling pasta water has been wasted.
What else can you do with a microwave? You can defrost the chicken that you put in your broken refrigerator for a day and then re-froze, and which may or may not have salmonella. (I didn't die, but don't do this). You can sterilize kitchen sponges that have begun to smell like feet. You can poach an egg! Amy taught me this one: crack an egg into a coffee mug, cover it with a few inches of water, and microwave for a minute or so, depending on the strength of your microwave (it took a little fiddling to get the timing right). When Amy did this, she turned out two perfectly poached eggs. When I did it, my egg exploded all over the microwave. But it is possible.
Amy and I have grown to love our microwave, but we do sometimes overestimate its powers. The other night, I made chili:
Amy pointed out that we really couldn't have chili without cornbread. I concurred. The problem? Cornbread needs an oven, or at the very least a stovetop and a small skillet. Or does it? We decided to make cornbread in the microwave. We stirred the ingredients together and watched, entranced and slightly horrified, as the microwave turned the dish round and round and the yellow mixture began to swell and bubble.
The result was asymmetrical, but it seemed cooked, and a fork in the center came out clean. Huh.
So we sliced it. It held together, and the taste was good. The texture, though, left something to be desired. It turns out that the microwave didn't so much cook the cornbread batter as dry it out; we could still feel the bits of cornmeal between our teeth.
Overall, With the microwave as an aide and the powers of the electric skillet, we're managing just fine.
The other day, we had a ridiculous amount of zucchini around the house. We also had exactly two eggs left. When I happened to mention this to my mom on the phone, she suggested fried zucchini cakes. Brilliant! I grated one giant zucchini into a bowl. Then we realized we also had two leftover potatoes. Amy suggested we add them and make sort-of latkes. So I grated the potatoes too. We added crumbled-up saltine crackers as a binder, and our two eggs, and half an onion, chopped. The result was mushy and a rather unappetizing color.
I became more and more optimistic as we fried the latkes (or whatever they were). They got less mushy and began to turn a nice crispy brown.
Well, the onions were a little raw, and the latkes could have used some applesauce, but overall they were a success. Here's the recipe, with changes to reflect more closely what we should have done.
Amy and Kaija's Zucchini Latkes
Using the largest holes on a grater, grate the zucchini and the potato. Combine in a mixing bowl. Chop the onion finely (or grate it, if you're very brave). Don't leave any large chunks of onion. Combine the onion with the zucchini and potato.
Add the eggs and mix well. Add flour gradually, until mixture is sticky but still wet (approx. 1/4 cup flour?)
Heat oil or butter in a skillet and spoon the batter on in dollops, pressing each one flat. Cook until browned on one side, then flip. Serve with applesauce (Or pepper and salt, or sour cream, or spaghetti sauce, or pretty much anything else you want).
Today, Amy and I went apple picking, and now we have a peck of apples to dispose of. I see microwave applesauce in our future, perhaps...?
That's it for food, up to now. I'm excited to continue my culinary adventures, and if any of you have any microwave miracle recipes, I'd love to hear them.
In the last few days, I've had the chance to visit the Hawk Ridge raptor banding station. While our job at the count platform is to tally every raptor that goes by, the folks at the banding station want to get up close and personal with just a few (but the more the better!). If we see birds from the count platform that are flying pretty low and seem to be heading in the direction of the banding station, we radio the station and they start "fishing" with their lures.
When a raptor sees what it thinks is an injured bird on the ground, it often can't resist the possibility of an easy lunch. Frank Nicoletti, the banding director, traps the birds as they come in with one of three types of nets. Dho gazza nets collapse over a bird when it hits them. Bow nets can be sprung to swing over a bird on the ground. Then there are mist nets, similar to the kind used to catch songbirds. Mist nets are made of fine black cord, and they are almost invisible to a bird. (Judging from the number of times I have nearly walked into a mist net, they're almost invisible to humans, too.) When the bird flies into the net, it gets tangled in the loose, baggy netting and can't get out.
Regardless of the type of net, banders know how to carefully and gently extract the bird so it doesn't get hurt, at which point they can weigh it, measure it, and put a band on it. The process is pretty much the same for songbirds and raptors, except that raptors are much bigger and have extremely sharp beaks and talons. If you get pecked by a songbird while taking it out of the net, there's usually no serious harm done. Getting pecked or "footed" by a raptor is a different story. The valiant banders and trainees at the banding station sport scratches all over their hands and an uncanny ability to ignore the blood dripping down various parts of their body.
But I'm exaggerating things a bit. The banders know what they are doing, and Frank was kind enough to show me around the station the other day. Here I am holding an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, which banding trainees Reed Turner and Alan Moss taught me how to handle safely, gripping it in just the right place to avoid getting footed.
Here's Alan with the sharpie, showing off the bird's short, rounded wings, long tail, and the beautiful reddish barring on its chest.
We can tell this bird is an adult because of that reddish color on its chest, and because of the red eye and the slate gray color on its back, as you can see here.
The way that I'm holding the bird in the first picture is called the "popsicle hold" for obvious reasons. Alan is demonstrating the "three-quarters hold" which is used to show the bird's wing.
These photos were taken during a slow period at the banding station. But for a while during my visit, it was pretty busy, and I'm not referring to humans. The banders sit in a blind (a small hut painted brown and green to at least sort of blend into the trees) with the nets in front of them in a field. Raptors come in from over the trees in front and stoop to catch the lures. Alan told me that's the coolest part of his job: while they don't see as many birds as we do at the count platform, the ones they do see are diving in close at amazing speeds. I got to watch at least three Sharp-shinned Hawks and one Northern Harrier come into the station and get banded.
On Monday, the banding station caught a juvenile Northern Goshawk. A goshawk belongs to the same genus, Accipiter, as the little sharpie in the pictures above, but it's bigger, bulkier, and just plain scarier. (British author Helen Macdonald recently wrote a very good book about training a goshawk, which is packed with descriptions of the ferocity and beauty of this legendary bird. It's also well-written and filled with interesting history, and I'd recommend it to anyone, birder or otherwise) This goshawk was the first I had ever seen, and it hurtled low over our heads at the platform like a missile. We barely had time to reach for the radio and yell "Hawk watch to banding station: GOS!" before it went down below the trees and was caught in their nets. And since it was my first goshawk ever and only the second one caught at the banding station this year, I got to go down and see it.
When I walked into the banding station, the bird was screeching its head off, and the intimidation factor was high. I have frequently heard the calls of kestrels, Merlins, and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and most birds will vocalize when they're caught, out of alarm and in attempts to scare whoever's holding them into letting them go. But this goshawk was something else. It's a very large bird and has a voice to match its size, and within the confines of the small banding blind, it was deafening. While she measured and banded the goshawk, Karen Stubenvoll (Hawk Ridge board chair and volunteer raptor bander) explained how dangerous goshawks can be, and how she has learned to be cautious and extremely respectful of the bird's size, power, and sharp talons while she handles it. I listened in fascination from a safe distance, until she asked if I wanted to hold the bird.
I did. Oh, yes, yes, yes, I did. Those talons looked very, very sharp, and the bird was very, very big, and I couldn't have been more excited.
Karen held it first. She looks so calm.
I held it next. I look calm, too, but I assure you I was feeling like doing a little screaming of my own.
The bird was warm and solid in my hands, and strong. As it called, its whole body shook, and I felt my hands slipping lower down the sleek feathers. As you can see from the picture, my two hands together barely fit around the bird's body. Eventually, the bird worked a wing free, and I let go, because I could tell that trying to readjust my grip would only result in pain, blood, and screaming. (This is why Karen held the bird first.) The goshawk took off into the forest and perched on a tree, shaking its feathers.
The first time doing anything is special, and holding this bird was no exception. It's not every day that you get to hold your lifer (in birder slang, a "lifer" or "life bird" is a new bird species for you; one you've never seen before). It was awesome to have felt this bird's heart beating and to have watched it fly free, knowing that I may be one of the few humans who will ever touch it.
But if doing something for the first time is special, then doing it over and over again diminishes how intensely we experience it. I'm glad I got to hold this goshawk, but I'm equally glad that I don't hold goshawks every day. Already, up at the hawk watch, I catch myself zoning out as the hawks stream by, ticking off a sharpie on the ridge, two sharpies on the lake, a kettle of fifty broad-wings, no big deal. The sheer number of birds makes us forget that each one of them has a bill and talons and powerful wings, each one has a voice to fill a banding blind or strike terror into the heart of a flock of crows, and each one has a heartbeat.
Thursday, September 3rd, was a momentous day. I turned 18. And it's about time! Now I can sign forms for myself, vote, get called in for jury duty, get married without my parents' consent, and do lots of other fun things!
In the past, my birthday has been a funny combination of happiness and worry, as it usually falls in the week before the first day of school. In sixth grade, the first day of school was September 3rd, and my birthday gift was meeting a whole bunch of new people, none of whom knew or cared much that it was my birthday. In any case, I usually celebrate my birthday at home, or on Cape Cod, with my family and friends. When I wake up in the morning and come downstairs, my mom has made brightly colored "Happy Birthday Kaija!" signs and hung them from the light fixture above the table. Sometimes there are presents. Every year, we eat angel food cake and strawberries after dinner.
This year was a little different. School isn't looming. I'm in a new place with new people, but they aren't twelve and awkward and covered with zits. I'm not with my family––we had our angel food cake in late August, before I left for Duluth. And I'm on the cusp of my first real "grown up" year to match my "grown up" age. We're not in Kansas anymore.
But despite all these differences (and because of them), I had a really great birthday. Here's how it went.
I woke up at what felt like a much too early hour. It had rained most of the previous morning, and we hadn't gone to Hawk Ridge until noon (the hawks won't fly in a hard rain, so there's no point in getting wet and miserable. This is a nice aspect of hawkwatching.) The air felt damp and heavy when I woke up, and I opened my blinds, thinking that maybe today would be another rainy morning. And maybe I would get to sleep a little longer. I looked out the window and saw... very little. It wasn't raining, but a dense fog had settled over Duluth. Visibility was poor, and the trees looked eerie.
Despite the fog, we headed up to the ridge, driving with headlights and windshield wipers and peering anxiously around corners before making frantic left turns, hoping that no cars would materialize and hit us. We made it up to the ridge in one piece, set up the merchandise trailer, put down our bags and... waited. The fog was dense enough to block all views of the sky or the city below. If any hawks were flying in this weather, the only way we would be able to count them is if they flew out of the fog and directly at our faces.
There seemed to be no point in setting up a spotting scope, and Alex and Karl hadn't arrived yet, so I poked around the top of the ridge for a while. I went a little ways on a few of the trails around the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. I found a lovely spiderweb covered in fog droplets. But the wet plants whacked my bare legs and the ground was slippery, so I turned back.
Just when I seemed to be looking at spending my birthday morning, and maybe the whole day, on top of a foggy hill with no birds, without a sweatshirt (the weather report had said it was going to be hot!), Alex arrived. Good, at least I would have someone to commiserate with about the lack of hawks. But Alex walked to the count platform, took one look around, and informed me that we were going to go look for warblers. As long as there were no raptors, Hawk Ridge could do without its counters.
We headed down to Park Point, a long, narrow spit of land into Lake Superior. On my first day, Karl told me it was "the longest strip of land in the world. Or something." It's actually the largest freshwater sand spit in the world, but hey, close enough, Karl. At the end of the point is a park, and the various stands of trees were fairly dripping with warblers (for you non-birders: warblers are small, colorful songbirds, known for their beautiful colors and songs, and also for being really hard to identify correctly because there are so many of them and they change plumages with age and throughout the year). The warblers, having started their own fall migration, weren't eager to fly in the heavy fog, so they had stopped at the park to forage for insects among the leaves. At Park Point we were below the fog, so visibility was slightly better, although we still couldn't see out onto the lake or up to the ridge. The birding was amazing. Often there were several species of warblers clustered in the same tree, or flitting from shrub to shrub as we eagerly tried to pick them out from the leaves. We saw beautiful Cape May and Magnolia Warblers, several tiny Least Flycatchers, striking black and white Caspian Terns, and many gray-brown Swainson's Thrushes hopping on the ground under the trees. We even got a glimpse of a Mourning Warbler, an elusive and uncommon bird that was a first for me.
Those of you who are interested can find my full eBird checklist here.
Around 1pm, we got a call that the fog was lifting over the ridge, so we made our way back to the car as quickly as we could. For birders, that means stopping only for some birds, like for a Least Sandpiper that flew circles over a flock of Ring-billed Gulls, or for a Savannah sparrow that flew so close by Alex's face that it almost hit him. Eventually we were in the car, headed to the ridge, and all was going well. Redstarts darted overhead and we tallied our first robin of the morning. And then we hit traffic. The Aerial Lift Bridge, which spans the channel between downtown Duluth and Park Point, was lifting up to let a ship go through. As someone put it to us gleefully later on, "you got bridged!" It was like one of those bad dreams where you desperately need to get somewhere or do something but your legs won't move. We could see the fog clearing and we knew the birds were flying, but we still had a ways to go.
Then I saw the warbler. It was in the low branches of an evergreen tree just to our left, in someone's yard at the edge of the road. We grabbed our binoculars and found more birds: an American Redstart in the tree's upper branches, a Red-eyed Vireo in a bush just yards from the car door. We forgot all about the bridge, and before we knew it, the traffic cleared and we were whizzing towards the ridge.
The fog was fast disappearing and soon the sky was clear. And the hawks were flying! We had 107 Sharp-shinned Hawks in the first hour after we arrived, and 134 the next hour. The clickers were going like mad. There was a steady stream of Bald Eagles, too, a mix of adults and immatures, and some came close over our heads.
At the count platform, we have another responsibility besides identifying and counting birds. The Hawk Ridge raptor banding station is located just down the ridge from the count platform, and it's our job to radio over to the station if there's a good bird coming their way, so they know to be on the lookout. I enjoy playing with the radio. It makes me feel like I should be saying "Roger" all the time and using funky codes.
Anyway, after we had been at the ridge for a couple hours, I spotted a bird out in front of us, flying fast, with pointed wings and a long, narrow silhouette. I could tell from its shape that it was a falcon, but I'm still working on my raptor ID skills. I needed to wait for the bird to get closer before I could tell whether it was an American Kestrel, a Merlin, or a Peregrine Falcon. But Karl and Alex didn't need to wait. They spotted the bird and jumped up, cameras at the ready. A few seconds later, an immature Peregrine Falcon zoomed over our heads, wings locked in a glide, headed directly for the banding station.
It was amazing how quickly they caught the bird. Frank, the banding director, told us later that the falcon dove in after the lure at 80 or 90 miles per hour (well shy of that species's record speeds of nearly 200 mph, but still.) Best of all, we were invited down to the station to see it.
I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.
After a long day of exciting hawkwatching, we headed home, where I finished up a great birthday with some strawberry ice cream and mini M&M's.
And I received one more birthday present: chocolate owls from Karl's girlfriend, Jane. They were delicious!
More news of birds and life coming soon!
Thanks to Becca Webster and Janelle Long for inspiring the title of this post.
This summer, I did some babysitting from time to time. One of the girls I watched is four and a half. She was very cute, but sometimes she fussed or lashed out at her sister or screamed when she didn't get what she wanted. She had to be reminded to use her words. The thing is, to a four-and-a-half-year-old, using words isn’t always easy. She might know that she wanted to say is, “Could you please drop that purple marker and give it to me right now because you've had it already for five minutes and it’s really my turn, please?” but that’s a lot of words, and some of them are hard to pronounce, and maybe she didn't quite remember how to say “already,” and she got so frustrated that hitting came to seem like a much more effective way to get her point across in the moment.
Most of us don’t remember how frustrating it was to be four and to not be able to articulate our thoughts as effortlessly as the big amazing grown-ups around us. When the grown-ups said things, they made sense, but when we tried to do the same, somehow it didn’t come out quite right. And yet we persisted, because there wasn’t any other option, and because the benefits of suffering through toddlerhood were so great: to be able to speak and think and talk and read and write in our native tongue, more or less without trying.
This summer, I willingly turned myself back into a toddler. I was four again (or if I'm being honest, more like two) for two nights a week from 5:30 to 7, at BASE, the Boston Area Spanish Exchange.
That’s right, I’m learning Spanish. And as with most things in my life, you can blame it on the birds. A few months ago, when I was searching for ornithology internships and field research positions, I kept stumbling across positions in fantastic-sounding countries in South America. “Please send us writing samples in English and Spanish,” one of the descriptions said. For others, “knowing Spanish is beneficial, though not required.” Another one stipulated, “candidates with strong Spanish language skills are preferred.” Drat. I have been taking French in school since sixth grade, and I’ve gotten pretty good. I spent three weeks in Paris this winter with the Newton North French Exchange, and refused to speak any English with my host family. I can write and comprehend fluently, and my speaking is improving steadily. There are still countless words, phrases, and idioms that I don’t know, but if you plunked me down in a francophone country, I would be (and was) totally fine.
As for Spanish, my grasp of the language was limited to bizarre fragments gleaned from my friends at the lunch table at school, as most of them took Spanish. I knew how to say things like ¿Qué estas haciendo? (What are you doing?) and ¿Puedo ir al baño? (Can I go to the bathroom?) and “Yo sé que la unica manera de eliminar la pereza es ser muy estricto”*** which came from a seventh-grade Spanish class skit having to do with a ghost, and which my friends were still repeating ad infinitum well into high school.
Anyway, I gave this some thought. I have really enjoyed learning French (and I’m not stopping! More on this in future posts!) and between future bird-related travels and the large Spanish-speaking population both in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it seemed like I had everything to gain from studying the language. So I signed up for a twice-a-week Spanish class, bought a textbook, and began at the beginning. “Me llamo Kaija Gahm. Vivo en Newton y tengo diecisiete años. ¿Cómo estas? Estoy bien, y tú?”
Of course there is a limit to how much Spanish one can learn in three hours a week. But taking this course has taught me a few things. First, language learning is really cool. The fact that kids can, simply by hearing words around them, learn to string those words into coherent sentences is mind-boggling when you try to do the same as an adult. In class, I listen and jot down phrases (Hay esta = there it is), mentally resolving to use them the next time the opportunity presents itself. I have gained new insight into how I talk to my babysitting charges: even repeating what they say, but elaborating, helps them to feel heard and gives them new words for their stories and sentences.
In Spanish class:
Profesora: “Kaija, ¿por qué necessitamos los adjetivos?”
Kaija: “Uhm… para hablar bien?"
Profesora: “Sí, para describir las personas y las cosas muy específicamente!”
Kid: “The queen goes inside the tornado and it’s very sad!”
Me: “Did she want to go inside the tornado?”
Kid: “No! The tornado comes onto her and she doesn’t want to go!”
Me: “She gets caught in the tornado, and it takes her away?”
Me: “Does she say ‘Oh no!’?”
Kid: “OH NO!"
The second thing I’ve learned from Spanish class is this: French helps. Wow, does French help. I have a second set of cognates to work off of, and I’ve already grappled with the grammar structures. I was able to grasp “haber” easily because it’s analogous to the French “il y a,” and reflexive verbs make sense to me. I know what definite and indefinite articles are, and I have practice with making accords between gendered nouns and adjectives, verb conjugations and subjects. In one class we had a contest to see who could identify the most adjectives, verbs, nouns, etc. in the lyrics of a song. Three people scored highly, and within three points of each other. The other two scored much lower. I did well and I thought I knew why. After class, I checked: sure enough, the high scorers had all studied French before taking this class. Of the other two, one had never taken a foreign language and the other had studied German, which has little relationship to Spanish.
Interestingly, though, French also hurts. It seems that my brain has a compartment for English and a compartment for all other languages. I frequently find myself saying “des” instead of “unas” or “unos”. The word “les,” which is a definite article in French and a personal pronoun in Spanish, never fails to confuse me.
Most of all, taking Spanish has taught me that comprehension, especially when another language is helping me out, comes lightyears ahead of speaking. It’s frustrating, much like being trapped in a bubble, able to perceive the world but unable to engage with it. But hey, now I know how it feels to be a baby! In January and February of this year, I’ll be switching back to French, living with a family in Rodez for a month or so as part of a work exchange program called Workaway. But I hope that sometime this year, be it over the holidays or next spring, I will have a chance to continue studying Spanish, because even though being four is great, I’m pretty excited to grow up.
***If you were wondering, this translates to “I know that the only way to eliminate laziness is to be very strict.” All I know is that the skit was about a ghost. If you’re confused, you’re in good company.
Here's the thing: when the leaves change color and the temperature gets pleasantly cool and the big hawks start flying, and when your job is to stand in the beautiful outdoors and watch them fly, it gets hard to tear yourself away. I haven't posted in a while because I was spending all my waking hours with the birds, and with the fantastic Hawk Ridge people I realized I would soon be leaving behind.
After a couple late nights of packing and one last early morning at the ridge, I boarded a plane out of Duluth on November 1st. I've come home to Newton, where the maple trees still have most of their bright orange leaves and it was warm enough to wear a t-shirt today. I've come home to my family, my own bed and a kitchen with an oven and a full-sized refrigerator. But I'm already missing the hawks and the people, and I have lots of photos that I haven't posted here yet, so this is going to be a mishmash, anecdote-filled sort of post.
When I left off, October was just beginning. We were still having significant movements of birds like Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels, but the large birds were starting to come through in earnest. One day, a large group of Turkey Vultures flew past the ridge. They formed a kettle just like the Broad-winged Hawks did earlier in the season, but when they streamed out of the kettle, they looked like huge black airplanes. It was spooky.
Turkey vultures are awesome birds. They're so large and majestic that many people are amazed to hear that the huge black bird they're looking at has a naked pink head that it habitually sticks deep into the entrails of road-killed animals. Turkey Vultures have a few other pleasant habits, too: they poop on their feet to cool them off, and as a means of defense, they are capable of projectile-vomiting up to ten feet.
Yep, Turkey Vultures are pretty cool.
You know what else is cool? Goshawks. I already wrote about seeing one goshawk in the hand, here. But Hawk Ridge sees the highest numbers of migrating Goshawks of any hawk watch in North America, so I got to see a lot more of these cool birds. Here's one being held by banding trainee Alan Moss. This bird is a juvenile male, just like the one that I held.
116 Northern Goshawks have been counted at Hawk Ridge so far this year. It was very cool to see these birds in the hand, and a few of them flew pretty close over our heads at the count platform. But the photo below is much more typical of Goshawk behavior.
Goshawks like to rocket through the forest and appear suddenly when prey animals (or hawk counters) are least expecting them to. As a result, we most often got brief glimpses of Goshawks flying low through the trees down the ridge.
One dark, overcast day, Frank caught an interesting Red-tailed Hawk at the banding station: a Harlan's intergrade (Harlan's is one subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, and based on details of its plumage, this bird was probably part Harlan's). Alex drove down to the station to bring the bird up to the overlook so we could all see it. It had been chilly and overcast all day, but just then a small gap in the clouds moved over us and a little bit of sun illuminated the clouds on the ridge. I captured these photos.
It's easy to forget that other things fly past the count platform at Hawk Ridge besides raptors. But the non-raptor migration at Hawk Ridge is an equally spectacular phenomenon. I talked about this already in this post. Towards the end of the season, the non-raptor flights began to slow down and change in composition. Warblers gave way to finches; some days we recorded Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, both Red and White-winged Crossbills, and Common Redpolls. One day, a real rarity came by: a Mountain Bluebird, which has been seen at Hawk Ridge only a couple times before. To our amazement, this bird flew directly over our heads.
We also continued to enjoy visits from resident birds (birds that aren't migrating), like this Pileated Woodpecker.
Pileated Woodpeckers are big, almost crow-sized. Their beaks are incredible: the birds are like chisels with wings. Here's a video of one in action:
The Hawk Ridge Pileated Woodpecker was fond of launching itself out from the trees while giving its loud, resonant call. It's a spooky sound, and one that I don't get to hear all that often in suburban Massachusetts, so I loved it when this bird paid us visits.
Back to raptors: in October, Red-tailed Hawks took the place of Broad-winged Hawks, forming kettles over the lake and offering a new challenge: because of their prominent field marks that can be seen at a great distance (among them the eponymous red tail), we attempted to record the age of each Red-tailed Hawk we saw. Luckily, the Red-tail kettles weren't as huge as the Broad-wing kettles, so it was often possible to age most of the birds.
This bird can be identified as a Red-tailed Hawk by its stocky body and broad wings adapted for soaring, as well as its belly band, dark marks on the leading edge of its wings (on either side of the head) and dark wrist "commas" near the outer edges of the wings. We can tell it is an adult bird because of the bright red tail and the dark edges on the trailing edges of the wings.
Rough-legged Hawks, another member of the genus Buteo (like Red-tailed Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks) also began to migrate past the ridge in October. Rough-legged Hawks are a little lankier than Red-tails and flap differently. They also have prominent dark patches on the undersides of the wings, shown well on this bird.
Bald Eagles continued to migrate by in large numbers in October. This adult came up from the valley below the ridge and made a nice close pass by the hawk watch.
Even though I was spending more and more hours at the ridge, there were still times to bird elsewhere. One evening, reports came in that a Snowy Owl had been sighted down at Park Point in Duluth. Snowy Owls breed on the Arctic tundra and are usually found in the greatest numbers in the far northern U.S. and Canada, but if food is scarce, some owls will be driven south, and they turn up pretty regularly in the northern states and even farther south; they have even been reported in Florida in the past few years.
We drove down to Park Point, fingers crossed the whole way that the owl wouldn't fly off. It was getting dark, and we knew we only had about a half hour of daylight left to see this bird (luckily, Snowy Owls are white, so that made it a little easier).
We found it! The owl was sitting on someone's roof near where it had first been spotted a few hours before. This photo is taken with my camera through a spotting scope, a process known as "digi-scoping" that birders tend to use when a bird is really far away, or they don't have a big enough camera lens, or both.
Another highlight of my last few days at Hawk Ridge was a field trip to Minnesota's north woods and the north shore of Lake Superior. Hawk Ridge count interpreter Clinton Nienhaus led a bunch of us on a very long car trip to look for boreal species like Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-backed Woodpecker. We didn't find the woodpecker (which would have been a life bird for me), but we found many other species, including another Snowy Owl and all three species of scoters (scoters are a type of diving sea duck). We also found this Snow Goose in Grand Marais.
On this trip, I decided to take some pictures of people instead of just birds, birds, birds all the time. Here's Amy walking along a breakwater in Grand Marais harbor.
Back to the Ridge: Frank caught some more cool raptors, including two adult male Northern Harriers in two days. Female and juvenile harriers are brown, but the males are a beautiful silvery-gray color with black wingtips; in flight, they're often referred to as "gray ghosts." Below are three photos of the same bird. You can see that the feathers on its face are arranged in a disc pattern, sort of like those on an owl's face. Those feathers act like a satellite dish, picking up sound and channeling it to the bird's ears, helping it to hunt.
On the second harrier, I got photos of the outstretched wing. You can see how long and lanky the wings are in comparison to the body. They're well adapted for the low coursing flight of a harrier over a marsh or grassland; they do most of their hunting low over the ground and don't often soar. The black patches on the wingtips are also clearly visible here; those patches make an adult male Northern Harrier very distinctive in flight.
While we're on the subject of cool bird adaptations, here's a throwback to September 21st, when the banding station caught an adult Peregrine Falcon. Falcons have two really cool features, both of which you can see in this picture.
1) The nose cone. I don't know if that's the technical term, or if there is one, but if you look inside this bird's nostril, you can see that there's a little bump inside, shaped a bit like the cone on the inside of a jet engine. When falcons are diving at very high speeds, the air rushes past their nostrils so fast that it's hard for them to breathe. The cone in their nostril helps disrupt that air flow and allow some air to enter the nostril. It's the same principle in an airplane; the cone allows air to flow into the engine instead of rushing past it.
2) The tomial tooth. See the notch on the lower edge of this falcon's upper mandible, sort of between the nostril and the end of the bill? That's the tomial tooth. When a falcon catches a prey animal, it positions the animal's spine across its bill and bites down. The tomial tooth holds the prey in place, allowing the falcon to neatly snap its spine. It's gruesome, yes, but a falcon has to eat, and some other raptors don't bother to kill so cleanly.
Well, on that pleasant note, I'm going to wrap up this post. Above is a view from the count platform, looking back at Duluth, taken on my last morning at the ridge. I spent a few hours there before my flight: Amy was kind enough to drive me so I could say good-bye to Kathleen, our friend and volunteer from the Twin Cities; Alex, counter extraordinaire whose car held the clickers, the data sheets, the table, dog food to lure in rare gulls, stale cookies, and generally all the magic ingredients for a successful hawk count; Karl, who joined us after a dismal morning flight on the lake shore and who outpaces all of us in his skill, patience and endurance (he's been counting since August 15th and will stay until November 30th, and I've rarely seen him take a day off); Dave, founding director of Hawk Ridge and longtime weekend count volunteer; Steve, Alex's equivalent from last year, now a grad student at UMD; and Rachel, a childhood friend of my mom's who I connected with in Duluth and who brought doughnuts up to the platform for my last morning.
It was cloudy and very few birds were flying until just before I left, but the view out over the bare trees was familiar and beautiful. To say I was sad to leave would be a cliché and an understatement. I sat at the airport, scanning for Snowy Owls out the window of the terminal, and realized I was already missing the ridge, the people, and the birds. I'm home now, and I'll be off to Belize in about a week. But really I'm still in Duluth, shivering and watching for eagles and eating microwaved rice.
To everyone at Hawk Ridge: thank you for an amazing season. It was awesome to get to know you and learn from you. I hope I'll be back soon!
I don't know how to end this, so here are some gulls on light posts at Canal Park, with the lift bridge in the background.
Jump to a Post
Welcome to Hawk Ridge
A Massive Migration
A Happy Birdthday
Photos from the Week
Visiting the Banding Station
A Watched Kettle Never Streams
Food, Part 1
The Big Picture
Last Weeks at the Ridge
Belize, Part 1
How to Look at Birds, A Guide (or: Belize, Part 2)
All Creatures Great and Small
Kids and Language, Again
More Photos from France
Food, Part 2
Building Nests in California
Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Condors and Creatures in Big Sur
A Day at Hastings
I am a high school graduate taking a gap year before college. I’m interested in birds, biology, and the natural world, as well as history, foreign languages, writing, and reading.