Birdgasm

It’s a spring morning in Texas in the middle of peak migration.  A flock of birders is collecting in the parking lot of the Boy Scout Woods, one of the four Houston Audubon bird sanctuaries at High Island.  Their colors vary, but mostly stick to a neutral beige, brown or tan in order to blend in with their surroundings.  Their field marks include binoculars and/or cameras and/or scopes hanging from their necks, along their sides or tucked up under their arms.  Some might have eye rings, but most are missing wing bar coloring or crown or median stripes.

This roughly-assembled lot will migrate a short distance en masse to check in and pay their small day use fee (unless they already have their yearly High Island patch, a collectible badge of honor among birders).  The leaders of the bird walk appear, healthy looking fellows from exotic places like Guatemala and Ecuador, and they begin to set the rules and expectations for the walk.  Then the flock returns to their original spot, as the parking lot of this sanctuary is actually a high point in the walk.  Several orioles and tanagers are spotted.

After this, the group migrates en masse to a small field behind the little house that serves as the Houston Audubon’s field office in this little town.  There is a rope that serves as a boundary between the world the humans are allowed to exist in and the world in which only the birds belong.  There are three guides and probably thirty birders standing along the rope boundary with their binoculars raised.  Every few moments, someone would call out a birds name and point.

More often, a person would gesture or say a few words of description, and somehow with this abbreviated type of communication, those cued in nearby would look and add to the descriptions, until the bird guides put it all together into words that everyone could understand.  For instance, one birder says, “fork in the tree”, and a second person might add, “yellow breast”, and then the bird guide says, loud enough for all to hear, “Yellow Throated Vireo, four o’clock, on the right branch of the fork in the second tree back”.  Or, “something’s moving over here” (gestures loosely in a direction), “blue”, “Northern Parula, everyone, three o’clock!”.

Some birds would make the group gasp when they appeared, in mutual excitement and appreciation.  Then, there would be the more rare sightings, excitement evident in the guide’s voice when he rang them out: “Chestnut Sided Warbler, everyone!”, “Yellow Billed Cuckoo, in the back”, “Cerulean Warbler, just dropped down in the back area of greenery”.  Times like these, the excitement of seeing something new would start running along the spine, the message starting in the brain and moving all the way down to the body’s posterior, sending dopamine surges along with it.  During these times, I realized that at this point in my life, these kind of experiences have actually become more enjoyable than sex, more exciting than the prospect of taking off clothes and moving around in conjunction with another human being.  The group bird-gasms from seeing new birds appear, spotting them in the binocs or the scope and getting a good look, were activating my reward center in my brain more than (or at least as much as?) reaching a climax in intimate partnerships.  Is this what happens when you get old?  Is this what happens after three kids and a long monogamous partnership?  Or is this just what happens when you reach maturity?

We don’t have great pictures to show for this excitement, but perhaps you would prefer to imagine your own anyways.  Trust me when I tell you, this experience was definitely worth the journey. 10/10 would do it again.

 

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: Winter Birds

Crested Caracara
Yellow Crowned Night Heron
Roseatte Spoonbill
Killdeer
Tricolored Heron
Blue Winged Teal
Savannah Sparrow (?)
Marsh Wren
Red Tailed Hawk
A Peaceful Stretch
Not a Bird
Glossy Ibis
Northern Shoveler
American Coot
Eastern Phoebe
Mystery Bird – Orange Crowned Warbler?
Not a Bird. It’s Anahuac, after all!
Pied Billed Grebe
Shovelers….doing what ducks do
Coot, Scaup, Gallinule
Tons of Ibis, Cormorants, and various duck types

 

We spent the afternoon yesterday exploring a small part of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the Trinity River area.  The daily total was 29 species seen, for a total of 49 for the year so far, not a bad start towards my goal of 200 species for the year.

I did not see the rails I came here to find, but we did have a rare treat while walking along the Willow Trail:  a bald eagle was spotted overhead, and then we spied another eagle sitting at the top of a nearby tree.  It was huge, much bigger than we would have expected a Bald Eagle to be.  It was brown and white streaked, even on the head, not solid brown on top like a juvenile Baldie.  We suspected what we saw was a Golden Eagle, which has been reported over there in that area (although maybe not in January?).  It would have been awesome to have a picture to show for that, but Jason did not bring the camera while we were walking around (what? why?).  Now that I am thinking about it, though, perhaps it was a big red tailed hawk?

We drove around Shoveler Pond (2.5 miles), and it ended up being a slow drive because these two ladies in a pickup in front of us kept stopping to look at the birds with their binoculars.  I get it…that is what we were all doing….but they did not have continuous forward movement and did not use pull outs to move aside for faster traffic.  There was a LOT of stopping and no way around them.

I was feeling some anxiety because my older kids were at home and had some issue with the oven while trying to bake a pizza for lunch – turns out they child-locked it, I did not even know that was a thing – and also wanted to get home to make use of some Sebastian nap time to get things done.  Also, after a bit, it was the same birds over and over again.  Look, more coots, more herons, more egrets…okay nothing to see here, time to move on.  I don’t know what is the proper etiquette for this kind of thing, but I felt like giving those slow ladies a piece of my mind.  At the very end, they finally pulled to the side at one of the pull outs, and then gave us a dirty look while we passed.  I gave it right back!  Thought about adding a hand gesture, too.  I don’t know what that says about me.

I have this idea of exploring all the wildlife refuges within driving distance of Houston this year, and this was a nice start, despite those ladies.

2017: Can You Do a Blue Wave Without a Pussy Hat?

2017 did not go the way I was expecting, at all.

When it started out, I was moving along with the intentions I set forth the winter before: investing time in planning adventures with outdoorsy friends, working on growing my birding year list, trying new state parks with my family, hiking, camping, taking little trips to explore nature, doing a little geocaching and biking here and there – the typical things my family does, usually because this is what I want to be doing.

But then something happened, and I guess really the seeds of what happened were planted in November, with the election.  I had some feelings about the election that I was working through.  I wanted to take the feelings of despair I was feeling and use them for motivation but I didn’t know what to do.  On the way to work, I would typically listen to the Thom Hartmann show, because it came on before one of my favorite programs, Democracy Now.  Thom’s radio show would usually end with some call for people to get involved in our democracy, and he also made some statement that resonated with me about “now is the time to double down our efforts”.  Also, I had this desire to find people in my community who were more “like me”, who thought like I did.

Somewhere in there, I had been spending an occasional Sunday afternoon in a cooking group that I had found via Facebook.  It seems we must have gotten together soon after the election and found ourselves talking about it.  We all realized we were all on the same page with our thoughts. Later, the woman who hosted those events invited me to another group.  We started meeting in homes together about once a month following the Women’s March.

In the spring, the March for Science was happening and I planned to go.  My friend from the cooking club and then the neighborhood club had introduced me to yet another group or two, and next thing I know, I was making signs at the house of another woman, and meeting a few other women from this other new group at the march with our signs.  There were so many new groups forming and so many people to meet, so many chances to get involved.  By the time March rolled around, I had fully become a part of the Resistance.

In the end, I found my tribe through all this.  I became much more interested in these efforts than in the hobbies that I previously was spending my time in.  This is why I wasn’t writing much in here anymore.  I felt like this journal was mostly for my outdoor experiences, and I was having tribal experiences instead.

I made like 50 new friends this year, several of them that I consider my “inner circle” now, and we did so much together.  We met to write postcards, to meet candidates, to hear speeches, to plan events, to support those running for office, to engage voters, to stand up for the things that meant something to us.  We were calling our representatives on a regular basis to voice our opinions.  Some of us were able to sit down with our local reps and talk to them, or be involved in virtual town halls.  We attended rallies and marches together.  We ate and met for drinks together, even howled at the moon together to express our frustration with the political theater and yet our strength in our female pack.  We made signs, hosted fundraisers, listened to (and sometimes critiqued) speeches, and went block walking.  We spent time learning about election strategies from various courses and classes, learned about environmental issues from the Citizens Climate Lobby,  and went to listen to former politicians talk to learn from their experience (Al Gore, Joe Biden come to mind).  Many of those people in the group were getting on the ballot themselves, running for everything from precinct chair to running for Congress.  We were registering voters and working on getting the vote out.  And we will be doing MORE of those things this year, to prepare for the 2018 midterms.

This is a photo from an event I planned in September to bring candidates and voters together.  I was very proud of this event.  This was a helpful kickoff event for some campaigns and helped the candidates get their petitions signed to get on the ballot without having to pay a fee:

I feel like through all of this, I have learned so much about myself, about what matters to other people, about leadership and about politics. This is something that is bigger than any of us as individuals, and it is part of the legacy we will be leaving.  I was so proud to see my middle son decide on his own to write a letter to his Congressman expressing his thoughts on climate change and a desire to move away from the use of fossil fuels, and it was so exciting to see that he got a letter back in response (even though it was full of typical GOP speak).  It has not been in vain, this example we are setting.

There were a few other surprises this year.  I did not think at the beginning of the year that I would be invited to speak at a conference in Connecticut and get to go exploring their wineries with a former colleague and her friend, or that I would end up visiting Reno’s wild horses and hiking in Lake Tahoe, and the trip to Switzerland came out of nowhere.  I still have stories I want to write about that trip.

This coming year, I know a little about where it will lead but not all.  I just found out that I was confirmed to be a speaker at a HUGE conference in Denver in the summer, so I know there will be a trip to Colorado next summer, and that I will visit Bastrop again in the spring, and I am sure I will keep birding, geocaching, hiking, biking and exploring the state parks with my family.  Also, though, I will be keeping the Resistance alive, because it has become a part of me now that I feel I won’t be able to let go.  I know there is a tough fight ahead of us but I really feel like the left has been energized so much through this past year, that there is no way that there will not be a blue wave coming in 2018, and it will be so exciting to feel like I was a part of it.

I still don’t have a pussy hat, though.  😉

The Swiss Spiritual Experience

Hofkirche in Luzern, Schweiz = Lucerne Church of St. Leodegar, Switzerland

It was eleven am on a Sunday morning in Lucerne, Swizterland, and church bells were calling across the city, drawing the faithful to the steps of Hofkirche St. Leodegar.  A motion of energy, the click clack of women’s heels, the compulsion that led me to try to open the doors of every church I saw in my week in this country, the timing of events all pulled me along with the others in the vicinity to enter the ornate wooden doors and find our own personal wooden seat for Mass.

This cathedral, a distinctive site on the Lucerne skyline, had been calling people in this same manner since at least 1639, if not before in its many manifestations as an Benedictine abbey, monastery and universal church going back to the 8th century.

As the service began, a line of altar boys entered the space in front of the altar from the right hand side, followed by an elderly priest.  They formed a half circle in front of the altar, the priest in the middle in a green and white sash.  The service began with music, followed by a reading.  It was not in English, but if I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could almost follow along.

My mind drifted back on some of the experiences from my trip. In Basel, I had walked nine miles over six hours, experiencing as much as I could soak up in the time I had.  During that time, I stopped by the Basel Minster, a long-standing cathedral, marveling at the vastness of the holy space.  As I had approached the altar, I felt I could even hear the remnants of past music, the whispers of past voices.  I saw motion to my right, and realized it was not the past leaving its prints, but rather the present, as the music was coming from a woman softly playing a song on the organ.

The whispers were those of courteous and reverent voices of other visitors in the second seating area behind the altar.  I was curious about the second set of pews behind the altars in some of the churches that I saw, and I learned later it was to separate the rich from the poor during services.

In Elizabethenkirche, musicians were playing a concert near the altar.  I entered the coffee shop in the back corner and ordered a latte, then sat at one of the two tables inside the corner of the church to enjoy a respite from my walk and appreciate the music.  In the opposite corner, there was a sign indicating one could climb up the winding staircase(s) to the tower, so I started up.  The staircase started winding tighter and tighter in the ascent, and at some point, my courage failed me and I decided I would rather not get wedged up there.  I had the image of myself stuck somewhere near the top and no one to hear my plaintive cries for help. Perhaps I just got scared of losing my footing on the slippery stairs, or maybe it was the fear of heights that stopped me.  At any rate, my heart was beating fast as I made my slow, careful descent.

Two mornings later, I was taking an early morning walk in Interlaken when I noticed a peculiar site in the distance; two churches of distinctly different architecture sharing the same skyline.  I walked past fancy hotels and through a park to get over to that area to satisfy my curiosity. First, I came across what appeared to be an old monastery or convent attached to a Catholic church, plain and simple in details in the inside.  Next to it stood a Protestant church, the two having shared the skyline and property for hundreds of years in harmony.  The Schlosskirche, as this area is called, first housed 30 monks and then 300 nuns starting in the eleventh century.  Later, Reformation swept through Europe and the Protestant church was built.

Their harmonious dichotomy seemed in line with that in my heart, part skeptic and part saint.  The night before, I was stopped on the way to a bierhaus by a couple who asked me to participate in a survey on faith.  The first question had me rank how religious I was on a scale of 0-10.  I rated myself a 7, but then started to question this myself as the following questions dealt with my actual adherence to religious practices.  How regularly do you go to church?  How often do you read your Bible?  Have you ever committed these sins (list)?  Do you believe you will go to Heaven, and if so, (reflecting on these admissions of sins), why?

One of the questions dealt with how I viewed Jesus, and it was this thought, plus that of my cultural conditioning and spiritual upbringing, that I was contemplating on during my mental wandering in the Sunday Mass, perhaps seasoned with good old Catholic guilt.  Perhaps I had just viewed too much iconography during this week of exploring Switzerland.  I had answered that I thought of Jesus as a prophet, as a teacher, as the “Lamb of God”.  During the biblical age, lambs were brought into the temples as blood sacrifices, their bodies wasted as their throats were sliced open.  Jesus was not meek, though, in the spirit of lambs, but rather stood firm against the misrepresentations of faith.  He raged like a lion against the money changers in the temple, and refused to back down to the Pharisees.

Perhaps I had just been touched by the imagery of the Lion of Lucerne, a monument to the Swiss Guards killed in the French Revolution.  I had literally just come from the Lion Monument before the church service, and couldn’t help linking the spear in the lion’s side and the tears rolling down his cheek to the day of the Crucifixion. The conflicting feelings of lamb and lion I felt inside of me, my forgiveness towards those who sinned against me and yet anger at being treated badly, as well as the call to purity and to a sinful nature. I had on one hand the understanding that religion might just be a human construct to make peace with our own mortality, but on the other the feeling of faith in my heart that could not be quenched with reason and a guilt for not having been attending church on the regular.

All these thoughts and more stirred up inside me as the choir picked up, first a harmony of female voices to the left of me, then the deep bass of men’s voices on the right accompanying them, with a touch of organ or orchestra mixed it.  The music intensified my feelings, and I felt a single tear roll down my face, like the one carved into the Lion.  I wiped it off and it was time to leave, but the marks on my heart might stay behind.