Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Profiling" Takes on New Meaning in Arizona

The anti-immigrant bill that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law last weekend is shocking. It takes profiling to a whole new level. It requires that police demand proof of legal residency from anyone about whom they have "reasonable suspicion...that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States."

The alleged "alien" need not be committing a crime or other misdemeanor to be detained under this law. "A person is guilty of trespassing ..." if he/she is "present on any public or private land in this state" if he/she lacks authorization to be in the United States. In other words, the new law requires that people carry what amounts to an internal passport -- shades of the ugly days of the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa.

Representative Raul M. Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, suggested that the nation's business community protest the law by withholding convention business in the state. This could be an effective means of protest, but innocent business owners and their workers would suffer if this were to take effect. However, it must be noted that, in the late 1980s, it took the loss of the Super Bowl to prompt Arizona voters to reinstate a Martin Luther King holiday in the state.

According to Linda Greenhouse, there is some hope that the Arizona law will be overturned. In an op-ed piece in Tuesday's New York Times, Greenhouse wrote, "Supreme Court precedents make clear that immigration is a federal matter and that the Constitution does not authorize the states to conduct their own foreign policies."

Time will tell.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Event at Audubon Center at Mill Grove

Last night, April 24, I attended an event to honor Scott Weidensaul at the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. Weidensaul, who has written several books about birds and natural history, received the John James Audubon Center Award for Art Inspiring Conservation. One of his best-known books is "Living on the Wind", nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Proceeds from the event will benefit the preservation of Mill Grove.

Sponsored by Valley Forge Audubon Society and the J.J. Audubon Center, the event took place in a large plastic tent. This would have been a good idea if the night had been warm. But it was a chilly, rainy night, and it was a bit nippy in the tent until it filled up with people. But the company was convivial, and the food, served grazing-style, was very good -- wine and soft drinks, as well as cheeses, chips and dips, and pasta and sliders.

Our Audubon chapter, Wyncote Audubon Society, had purchased a table, and 10 of us attended. Proceeds from the event benefit Mill Grove, John James Audubon's first home in America.

Our friend, and longtime Wyncote member, Leigh Altadonna, served as MC for the evening. He spoke about the historical significance of Mill Grove, and introduced a State Senator and a Montgomery County public official both of whom pledged significant funds for a large visitor center to be erected on the site. The center promises to attract tourists and nature lovers from all over.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Best Laid Plans ....

Wyncote/DVOC Field Trip, Saturday, April 24, 2010

Twelve people (or, make that eighteen - see below) took part in the Wyncote Audubon Society / Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) field trip on Saturday, April 24 at Fort Washington State Park, PA. It was a beautiful sunny day. Temperatures ranged from 40F when we started out to 65F when we finished up.

It's still early spring, and in this part of the world, eastern Pennsylvania, very few migrants have made an appearance so far.

We (that, is, most of us -- again, see below) began the field trip at the Flourtown Day Use area on West Mill Road in Flourtown. We met in the parking lot, and heard Chipping Sparrow as soon as we got out of the cars. We made our way toward the pavilion, where, in past years, Eastern Phoebes have nested. Not so this year for reasons unknown to us. We walked a short loop around the park, past Wissahickon Creek and past the houses that border the park. No House Wren today -- funny -- I heard one there yesterday. We saw Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, and assorted woodpeckers. Song Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals accompanied us all the way around.

We walked past the wetland, which is not wet at all now. It's a "wetlands mitigation area" -- when PennDot made improvements to Route 309 some wetlands were destroyed. By law, PennDot (any wetlands destroyer) must create wetlands in other locations. (According to people who should know, 80% of these "mitigations" fail. But that's the subject of another Blog.)

We went across the field to the path that leads to the wooden bridge (the "poor man's canopy walk"). As we made our way past the big backyards, with chickens, huge gardens and honeybee installations, we saw Red-bellied Woodpeckers at a nest hole, and got a close look at Northern Flickers copulating. Our presence didn't appear to disturb the birds. Bert Filemyr got pictures. (This has been a very good area for woodpeckers this spring: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, as well as the red-bellies and flickers.) From the bridge we heard and saw Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Cedar Waxwings and White-throated Sparrows. An Osprey flew overhead, quite close. Yesterday I'd had Belted Kingfisher at this same spot, but not today.

When we had completed our rounds of that part of the park, we formed a car caravan and set out for the Militia Hill section of the park, about 10 minutes away. We heard and saw Yellow-rumped Warblers (our only warblers for the day) from the parking lot. We saw Red-tailed and Sharp-shinned hawks, as well as Black Vulture and three Red-tailed Hawks, as we made our way up Ridge Road. On our loop around this part of the park we saw and heard many more White-throated Sparrows, and got a great look at a teed-up Eastern Towhee.

Some of the participants were experienced birders, others were new at it, and everyone pitched in to help the new people get on the birds. It was a very nice morning.

But here's the "best laid plans" part: When I got home I had an email from a friend who said she and six others met at Militia Hill at 8:00 AM to join the field trip. As it turns out, the DVOC website had different information from the Wyncote website. My mistake, I'm pretty sure. At any rate, they saw pretty much the same species that we saw, with the addition of a Brown Thrasher at the feeders.

We'll get it all sorted out for the autumn field trip to Militia Hill -- or will it be to the Flourtown Day Use Area?? Be sure to check the website(s). Or, better yet, phone or email me!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Program on Winter Birding in Newfoundland

Tonight I'm going to present my program on Winter Birding in Newfoundland. I went on a WINGS tour in January 2008 for a few reasons: I wanted to see a Dovekie, a tiny seabird, at close range; I wanted the Newfoundland experience; a good friend of mine would be on the trip; and one of my favorite birding trip leaders, Jon Dunn, would be leading it.

It was a wonderful trip. As it happened, in addition to the expected gulls and other birds, there was an "invasion" of Bohemian Waxwings and White-winged Crossbills that year.

My program will contain pictures, some mine, some borrowed, of the birds and the amazing Newfoundland scenery.

Tomorrow's post will contain something about how the program was received.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Some Thoughts About the Birds of Hawai'i

On Friday evening a member of Wyncote Audubon Society, our local bird club, presented a program called "Birding in Paradise: The Birds of Hawai'i." My husband Bob and I had been on Kaua'i in December, and had spent some time birding and sightseeing there. The program reminded me of thoughts and feelings I had had during and after our visit.

I believe it is fair to say that what a birder or naturalist experiences in Hawai'i is quite different from what the average tourist experiences. People talk about the gorgeous foliage and the beautiful birds on the islands without realizing that so little of what one sees is, by any stretch of the imagination, native or endemic.

It would take a trip back through history to understand why this is so. And to do that would amount to taking a look at what our planet itself has been undergoing over the years. As the world becomes "smaller" and plants and animals are transplanted from their native habitat to foreign locations, all sorts of unintended consequences occur. One might consider the Russian Olive, brought in to control erosion, and which has invaded meadows and roadsides in the mid-Atlantic region. Or the Nutria, brought in for food and fur, neither of which proved to be successful, and which now dominates the food chain in southern swamps.

The birds and plants of Hawai'i existed in a stable ecosystem until humans discovered the islands and began introducing plants and animals from other places, Polynesia being one of the first. Then followed the farmers who established huge plantations and introduced cattle and other livestock. Mosquitoes and rats arrived with whaling ships. While much of this development can be looked at as "progress", it has gradually taken its toll on the native species.

A visitor to Kaua'i, The Garden Island, will see and enjoy a variety of birds from his patio: Common Myna from India; Red Junglefowl from Polynesia; Erckel Francolin from Africa; House Finch, Northern Cardinal, Western Meadowlark and Northern Mockingbird from North America; Brazilian Cardinal; House Sparrow from Europe; Japanese White-eye, Java Sparrow; Nutmeg Mannikin from Southeast Asia; Rose-ringed Parakeet from Africa and India; Spotted Dove from Asia; Zebra Dove from Malaysia; White-rumped Shama introduced by the Hui Manu. All nice birds; none native to Kaua'i.

A few native birds can also be seen at lower elevations: Pacific Golden Plover, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Hawaiian Coot, Hawaiian Stilt, Ruddy Turnstone, Hawaiian Duck, Nene (Hawaiian Goose, Hawai'i's State Bird), Wandering Tattler.

And wonderful seabirds can be seen from the Kilauea Lighthouse: Laysan Albatross, Red-footed Booby, White-tailed Tropicbird, Wedge-tailed Shearwater.

But to see the native Hawai'ian songbirds, we met a local guide, Jim Denny, and traveled over rough roads to the high-elevation Alaka'i Swamp. From the boardwalk we were able to see and hear several endemic Hawai'ian songbirds: 'Elepaio, Anianiau, Akekee, I'iwi, Apapane. Successful members of these and other species have retreated, over the years, to these higher elevations to find native plant life that supports their needs, and to escape mosquitoes to which they have never developed a tolerance.

For the average tourist, Hawai'i is seductively beautiful -- an idyllic place to vacation. But for the birder or naturalist it is a reminder of the devastation that the hand of man has been able to create. It is worth pondering.

Etre ou ne pas etre -- "Hamlet" the opera

The Metropolitan Opera brought back Ambroise Thomas's "Hamlet" after an absence of more than 100 years. I saw the Met's HDTV production earlier this week at a local movie theater. "Hamlet" was composed in 1868, and offers ample opportunities for vocal virtuosity. Ophelia's mad scene is a tour de force.

This production featured Simon Keenleyside in the title role, and Natalie Dessay was to appear in the role of Ophelia. These two have worked often together, and have established a remarkable stage chemistry. I'd been looking forward to seeing and hearing that. As it happened, though, Dessay became ill and had to withdraw. Marlis Petersen, a German soprano especially noted for singing Alban Berg's "Lulu", was able to step in on very short notice. She was quite wonderful, especially since she had had so little time to prepare. Evidently she and the conductor, Louis Langree, communicated by Skyping to prepare her for the role while she was still in Europe. Ah, the wonders of technology.

To say that the staging was in the minimalist tradition would be an understatement. It consisted mainly of huge, moving curved castle walls splotched with dark red and other somber colors. While the intent was evidently to showcase the singers, they were often dwarfed by it. A NY Times reviewer described the scenery at Ophelia's apartment as a "deconstructed hotel lobby."

But what I found the most disquieting about the production was the version of the "Hamlet" story that this opera employs. The libretto was drawn from one of the many old stories about a melancholy Dane named Hamlet. It retains many of the basic elements of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" but omits and rearranges significant others. For example, Gertrude the queen is in on the fratricide plot from the beginning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are absent, Ophelia stabs herself instead of perishing by drowning, there's no "Alas, poor Yorick" although a skull is dug up by some surly gravediggers, and the ending plays out differently. (Evidently the opera was written with two endings, one in which Hamlet does not die -- this one has most often been rejected.)

I hadn't known till recently that this opera even existed, so seeing it was an interesting experience. It's not to difficult to understand, though, why it is so seldom performed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Confederate History Month" Minus Slavery

Last week the Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, issued a proclamation recognizing April as Confederate History Month. He celebrated "those who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth" in an effort to remind people of "the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War." The Governor originally chose not to mention slavery in his proclamation. Instead he focused on "the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." Apparently he did not consider the suffering of the slaves a significant aspect of the war.

We visited Gettysburg recently and were reminded of the unimaginable suffering and the terrible loss of life, for both sides, on that battlefield. But one must remember that the most significant cause of that war was the issue of slavery. One would need blinders to ignore the plight of the slaves. Perhaps Governor McDonnell wears blinders.

There is no doubt that, right now, much of the public is feeling alienated and anxious about Obama, health care reform, job loss. They want the "old America" back -- an America that was largely white and middle-class. And now they find reassurance and comfort in substituting "heritage" for hate. Right-wing pundits fire up these anxious feelings in order to promote their own agenda and to create a following. And so far they have had spectacular success in fostering the politics of hate.

As Jon Meacham wrote in the New York Times, Sunday, April 11, 2010, "As the Sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter approaches in 2011, the enduring problem for neo-Confederates endures: anyone who seeks an Edenic Southern past in which the war was principally about states' rights and not slavery is searching in vain, for the Confederacy and slavery are inextricably and forever linked ..... We cannot allow the story of the emancipation of a people and the expiation of America's original sin to become fodder for conservative politicians playing to their right-wing base. That, to say the very least, is a jump backward we do not need."

It is the responsibility of level-headed citizens to think clearly and resist being swayed by hate-filled harangues of the demagogues who are championing a "conservative" agenda (whatever "conservative" means these days -- but that will be the subject of another post.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Volunteer Day at the Park

Yesterday I helped to register people who came to volunteer at Fort Washington State Park in Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful day, if rather chilly in the early morning. I've helped out at this yearly event for over ten years. Until this year, it was called "Clean-up Day," but the powers that be agreed that "Volunteer Day" was a more appropriate name.

I had a spreadsheet which listed names and addresses of all of the people who had volunteered over the past two years. Checking them in presented no problem. But this year, thanks to the publicity that the event had generated, we had a lot of new people. So getting them registered involved getting them to come to our table and sign in. Well, actually, I signed them in, since some people's handwriting, especially when it's cold, can be difficult to decipher.

People began arriving, many equipped with gloves, rakes, shovels, and trashbags, around 8:30. There was a steady stream of adults and youngsters after that. With the help of the volunteer coordinator, Marylea, and the park manager, Eric, they were set to work on various chores.

Tree planting was the key activity this year. A number of trees of various species had been donated to the park, and had been recently delivered. Park personnel had used augers to dig the holes, so the task was not as difficult as it had been on some previous years. Other chores included leaf raking, trash pickup, weeding, post-flooding stream cleanup, removal of storm-damaged branches.

At midpoint everyone enjoyed a very nice lunch. Much of the food had been donated by local restaurants and grocery stores, and volunteers helped with the preparation. Some folks left after that, and others stayed on to continue with the work.

When the day was over, we tallied over a hundred volunteers, including an enthusiastic group from Search and Rescue. These people, who use the park to train search and rescue dogs, show their appreciation by coming to volunteer every year.

So all that's left to do now is to send out thank-you letters to the volunteers, and to think about how to prepare for next year's Volunteer Day.

Friday, April 9, 2010


I tend to hang onto books that I've read and liked. The bookshelves in our den are getting crowded, and I'm going to spend this afternoon sorting through the books and figuring out which ones I really want to keep, and which ones I can bear to part with. Do I really need to keep all the Micheners? All the Harry Potters? I have to keep all the Dickens novels because we attend the Dickens Universe at UCSC every summer and I never know when I'll want to reread one. They take up an entire shelf. Other Victorian novels live on the shelf above Dickens. Those are some of my favorites -- Jane Austen, the Brontes -- and they will stay. I have English Lit books from college -- Chaucer, Shakespeare -- with notes in the margins. They will stay. I'm wondering whether I really need to keep Philip Roth. I know he's one of our finest contemporary authors, but I don't personally relate to much of his work except for "American Pastoral", one of my all-time favorites. I guess the rest can go.
And then there are the bird books upstairs. They take up a whole bookcase, and will be dealt with on another day. So, now I'll get to work. I'll let you know how many boxes I fill.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Moving the Barnes Foundation - A good idea?

If you can manage to see "The Art of the Steal" don't miss it. It is a documentary about the calculated alteration of Albert Barnes's will and testament in order to move the Barnes Foundation's priceless collection of post-impressionist paintings from its present Merion, PA location to a new, yet to be completed facility on the Parkway in Philadelphia. The film is guaranteed to make you think: What's the use of making a will?

My First Attempt at Blogging

Sometimes I have more to say than I can fit on Facebook's "What's On Your mind?" So I thought I'd try blogging and see how that works for me.