Friday, August 14, 2015

Perseid Reflections

Friday, August 14, 2015
We all have times in our lives when stress seems omnipresent or perhaps when a series of events or some turmoil sends us into a period of sadness or even depression. Some of us just wait for these feelings to pass. Others take to exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, music, travel, therapy, or even drugs or alcohol. Not all of these solutions will work for everyone—some might not even be classified as "solutions."

Portrait of the blogger as a young man in New York City. ©Dimitry Schidlovsky.

I've suffered as a restless sleeper most of my life. It's a rare night when I don't wake up from some dream or nightmare. Some nights I can go right back to sleep after waking. And other times there's no use even trying. I'm up and waiting for the dawn. About 20 years ago I went through a sleep clinic at a university hospital and was diagnosed as someone who suffered from night terrors. I was, at the very least, taking my daily stress and anxiety to bed with me, and that was causing my restless sleep patterns. I was given two options for treatment: sleeping pills or psychotherapy. I took the pills for a while, then quit. They knocked me out, sure enough, but I felt groggy, not rested, when I awoke. I changed a lot of other things in my lifestyle: gave up afternoon coffee and all carbonated sodas. No more watching "Rambo"-style action movies late at night. No late-night exercise. No late-night snacks. No chocolate. Basically I was removing all of the stimuli that might be contributing to my restless sleep. That helped for a long time.

Lately I've been back in that "Sleep, Interrupted" mode, which is dismaying and frustrating. I go to sleep just fine then have a jolt awake every hour or three all night long. Then, along about 4 a.m. or so my brain decides it wants to start the day, and it drags my body along with it. I start thinking about the day ahead, what I've left undone from yesterday, bills I have to pay, worries about this and that—perhaps this sounds familiar to some of you. For me, there's no fighting it. May as well engage.

But last night was different. Oh, I still awoke at 4 a.m. shaking off some kind of anxiety dream (I can never remember them clearly). But this time my brain gave me a gift. It said "Perseids!"
Persied meteor shower. ©NASA
The Perseid meteor shower is a favorite aspect of the late summer natural history calendar. Caused by the the Earth's atmosphere passing through the cosmic dust particles left in the trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids are a concentrated shower of meteoric activity usually occurring in late July through mid-August. The dust particles from Swift-Tuttle's trail enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn up, appearing as bright streaks of light zooming across the night sky. The 2015 Perseids got the astronomy community all fired up because they coincide with a new moon (meaning a naturally dark sky) and clear, cool weather. In other words, perfect conditions for watching the Perseids.

I shuffled out of the sliding door from my bedroom to the back patio and settled in for some meteor spotting. Instantly there was one, then two more, then another, but bigger, brighter. I thought about all the other people who might be watching this same sky right now. We are connected in this night watch.

I thought about the Native Americans who may have watched the Perseids from this very piece of land a few hundred years ago, before this was Ohio. I thought of the ancient peoples watching the meteor showers and wondered what they made of them. Good omens from the gods? My mind kept up its random traversing of time and topic. Did the migrating birds flying overhead at night see the Perseids? Surely they must...

I was lost in thought when the screech-owl started its soft tremolo. It made me feel better. Somehow more centered. And the stresses and worries of the day ahead receded. The vast inky black sky bejeweled with stars, planets, and meteors lent me a more rational perspective. I felt my breathing getting slower, deeper. I was drifting in the peaceful middle of a beautiful moment. I stayed in it as long as I could.

Nature has always been my go-to remedy for tough times. It's always available. It's free. It leads by example. It asks for nothing in return. I can't imagine, nor do I wish to, where I'd be without it.

Sleep well, my friends.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Hermit Thrush Hallucination

Friday, July 17, 2015

This morning, while walking out to the Birdmobile with the backpack-briefcase slung over my shoulder, coffee and toast in one hand, and three-ring binder of song lyrics in the other hand, I noticed the distinctive tchup call of a hermit thrush. It was calling consistently from, I guessed, the ash tree behind the garage. This is a call I know very well—one I've heard often in the 20-plus years of living on this old ridge-top farm. But there was a problem with the timing of this call. Or, more accurately, a problem with the timing of a hermit thrush being here in southeastern Ohio in mid-July.

Hermit thrushes are not supposed to be here in mid-summer. They are with us from late fall through spring, but they leave us to nest elsewhere—mostly to the north—in the cooler, more conifer-rich forests of Canada or the mountain forests of Pennsylvania and New York. According to the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas, hermits do nest in Ohio in a few places where there are hemlocks and more northerly-feeling habitat. Nesting records have been confirmed in the Hocking Hills region and in northeast Ohio, in Ashtabula County.

As I was walking through the front yard, hearing the tchup, the improbability of this bird being here was dawning on me. "It's July 15. Why is there a hermit thrush calling in our yard?" I stopped to listen more carefully. Getting eyes on this bird would be confirmation of an out-of-season record. The sound stopped. I listened for a minute but no more tchup-ing. So I started walking once more out to the birdmobile and the sound started again. I stopped to try to get a fix on the sound. The sound stopped too. I wondered if I was so close to the bird that my stopping was scaring it. I took two more steps and heard a single tchup. Weird.

Then for some reason my brain came back online. I took a few steps while looking down and realized the tchup sound was being generated by the inseams of my jeans rubbing together down at ankle level. The sound may have been bouncing off the garage wall to my immediate left, creating the thrushy aural illusion I was hearing.

I pulled the legs of my jeans up to check for hermit thrushes. No luck.

The rest of the walk to the van consisted of me shaking my head, snickering, and calling myself some rather perjorative names.

Birding friends have told me I have good ears. I know I have a fairly rich imagination. Perhaps a little too much on both counts.

That's my hermit thrush hallucination. Take care, and I'll hear you out there with the birds.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New Podcast Episode: Birding Uganda Part 1

Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Uganda's national bird the grey-crowned crane.

The latest episode of my "This Birding Life" podcast is now available for listening over at Podcast Central as well as in the iTunes Podcasts section. The episode is titled "Birding in Uganda Part 1" and the material covers the initial few days of my wonderful trip to this East African country last November.

Uganda conjures up many associations for people—both good and bad. The country is trying very diligently to overcome a past filled with upheaval, political and military violence, disease, and social persecution. Its rich natural resources (especially minerals and oil) have garnered immense attention from multinational corporations. This combined with the growth in Uganda's human population are just two factors that are putting increasing pressure on wildlife and wildlife conservation within the country. Uganda is one of the few places in Africa where mountain gorillas and chimpanzees are protected and can be observed readily by ecotourists.

The vast national parks in Uganda and the abundant wildlife that thrives in them, including elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, and all manner of antelope relatives and a variety of primates, all combine to make this land-locked nation a premier destination for wildlife watcher. Oh, and Uganda's bird list is nearly 1,100 species, so birding is a rapidly growing source of tourism revenue.

Our trio, at the start of our trip, standing outside the Uganda Wildlife Authority headquarters. From R to L: Dominic Mitchell, Tim Appleton, BT3.
I was invited by the Uganda Tourism Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority to visit their country last November. Also on the trip were two colleagues from England, Tim Appleton, MBE, co-founder of the British Birdwatching Fair and Dominic Mitchell, founder and publisher of BirdWatch magazine, a leading U.K. birding periodical. Both of these gents are extremely well-traveled, are top-notch birders and naturalists, and are just plain fun to be around.

 The day after our arrival in Kampala, Uganda, we met with tourism and wildlife authorities, then we got in a spot of birding before attending the opening ceremonies of Uganda's Bird Birding Week.

Attendees at the opening ceremonies for Uganda's Birding Week.
 As you'll hear in this episode of the podcast, the opening ceremonies contained a lot of speeches by tourism and wildlife authorities and government representatives as well as words from two of Uganda's leading birders, Herbert Byaruhanga and Johnnie Kamugisha. Each speaker began his or her speech by thanking and welcoming all the organizations and dignitaries. I've edited the content quite a bit in the podcast to give you an idea of what was being said without sharing every word spoken. One thing became clear to me on this first full day: Ugandan's are very proud of their country.

Uganda has done a lot to encourage young birders and female birders.
Another thing that I found to be immensely impressive was the amount of effort, funding, and attention paid to encouraging young birders, women birders, and to training and certifying birding and wildlife guides. Everywhere we went in the country we met young birders, guides in training, and people in general interested in making careers in the wildlife tourism industry.

Long-crested eagle.
 The day after the opening ceremonies, we drove northwest across Uganda to Murchison Falls National Park, where we were slated to participate in Uganda's national Big Birding Day. The drive took us all day for a number of reasons. First of all, getting out of Kampala was a traffic challenge.

Secondly, the roads in Uganda are a bit of a mixed bag—some fine and passable, others quite challenging. And finally, because we kept seeing birds and animals that made us shout for our driver to stop!

Our rugged safari vehicles got us all across western and southern Uganda.

Hippos watching our boat as we crossed the Nile.
 At sundown, we reached the mighty Nile River, across which lay Paraa Lodge, our home for the next two nights, and our base for the Big Day. We enjoyed a lovely meal that evening and, in the podcast, you'll hear the music and singing of a group from the local village who come to the lodge to welcome guests.

The musical group from the nearby village at Paraa Lodge.

Our Big Day guides were very talented birders and naturalists.
I'll let you learn how we did on our Big Day by listening to the podcast. Suffice to say we had an awesome time. It's definitely the most lifers I've ever found on a Big Day. And also the most mammals.

I hope you enjoy "Birding in Uganda: Part 1" which is episode 51 of the "This Birding Life" podcast.

If you'd like to meet Herbert and some of his fellow Ugandan birders, please plan to come to the American Birding Expo, October 2 to 4, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio. Uganda is an Expo sponsor and will have representatives there to share more about birding and wildlife watching in their country.