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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Alone with a Bear and Primary Colors

I'm sitting in a cramped hospital waiting room right now and the big lug of a white man sitting across from me is telling another big lug of a white man a detailed account of his latest golf shot. He is using all those words: birdie, bogie, par, handicap. He's also talking dollars and cents. "You pay a hundred and eighty dollars to join the league … if you win, you pay less and less."

He's dealing with the fear and discomfort of sitting in a hospital waiting room by talking about something he loves.

Me, too.

I've got a lot of medical stuff going on and it's a drag. It's doubly a drag because I'm handling it all alone. That's made especially challenging by the fact that I'm on a special diet. It is restrictive and it is depleting me. It is meant to. I am exhausted. I have to drive far to get to my medical appointments and I actually feel like I'm betraying my fellow citizens by getting behind the wheel of a car.

I'm keeping myself alert by blasting the air conditioning and using the GPS even though I know how to get to the hospital. The nagging, strident GPS voice keeps me awake. The desire to smack that back-seat driving bitch silly is just too strong to surrender to slumber.

I'm soothing myself by doing things I love. This past weekend I went to see three films back to back, and reviewed them here.

Tuesday I forced myself out of the house and went birdwatching.

I wonder what people who aren't birdwatchers think birdwatching entails. I wonder if people who aren't birdwatchers think that we, the birdwatchers, see plump, fully-formed birds in bright, eye-catching colors.

We don't.

We don't because the color in bird's feathers is usually created by structure, not by pigments. This is what structural color means – if you take a rock and mash up a bird's feathers, the feather will look gray or black. You will have mashed all of the structure, and all of the color, out of the feather.

OTOH, if you mash up a rock that contains pigment, something like ocher, you can use that mashed up ocher to paint other things the same color as ocher, that is, red-orange.

So, if the light hits a bird's feathers just right, and their structure and the light cooperate to perform the magic of color, you see the color. If the light and the structure are at odds, you see murk.

Birds also often have iridescent colors. Here's how iridescent colors interact with light:

"Iridescent feathers get their color from interference, which is due to waves of light interacting with each other to produce either constructive reinforcement or destructive cancellation of particular wavelengths, or colors."

At times I have looked at a mallard's iridescent head and seen green, the color you see on a mallard's head in a field guide telling you what a mallard should look like. At other times, I have seen royal blue, true purple, and absolute black.

Too, birding is often performed by ear. So we birders know that we are in the same woods with veery or wood thrush without ever seeing them.

And most birds don't want us to see them, so they move very fast. Many birds we see are rapidly moving blobs flying away from us at top speed.

So, a lot of the time, birdwatching actually entails a lot less watching of plump, stationary, brightly colored birds than someone who isn't a birdwatcher might think. The birds we see, much of the time, look more like flying Rorschach tests, the color of shadows and glare, the shape of a hole in a puzzle of leaves, twigs, and spider webs.

There are many different kinds of birdwatchers. Some people are mostly into numbers. They want to see the most birds in a day, or a year. If a lapwing, a European bird, suddenly shows up at Cape May, they will rise at three, drive to Cape May, see the lapwing, get back in the car, and be at work in Jersey City by nine. I have never been one of those kinds of birdwatcher.

I love Skylands but it hasn't offered me the best birdwatching. Cape May, one of the world capitals of birdwatching, has. Birds perch on your nose at Cape May. I've birdwatched at Cape May only twice in my life.

I want to encounter the place where I birdwatch as if it were a friend. I love Skylands. I go so often I rarely see new birds there. I always see the phoebe who nests on the WPA bridge built in 1939. Well, it can't be the same phoebe; I've seen nesting phoebes on that bridge for thirty years. I always see one broad-winged hawk near Mount St Francis, and another broad-winged hawk near Mount Defiance. I always hear a blue-winged warbler in the willows, and a great-crested flycatcher on the rocky bald. I usually see a pileated woodpecker zooming through the trees.

I don't rack up a huge list of birds this way, because I visit the same spots year after year. I do feel deep down good in my soul.

Even so, I had to push myself out the door on Tuesday. It was hot, and overcast, and I was feeling doomed and sad. So I got behind myself, placed the palms of my hands against my back, and pushed myself out the door.

A mist fell as I hiked. My face was surrounded by swarms of gnats. And up ahead there was a Rottweiler in the trail.

And I thought all this very fast: that's a Rottweiler; I'm alone; what am I going to do; no, that's not a Rottweiler. That's a bear. And it's a sub-adult. And I don't see mom. Oh … crap.

And I immediately thought of my Facebook friend Dale Weeks. I am pro gun control. Whenever I say that on Facebook I have to take a lot of incoming. Dale said that he'd been in a difficult situation once, and he was glad he had a gun.

I've been through some difficult situations too – including, when I was a young and foolish hitchhiking world traveler, more than man pulling a gun on me – once, more than one man at once pulling a gun on me. I thought. How did I get out of those tight spots without a gun?

Thoughts of Dale accompanied me as I did the following.

I stood still.

So did the bear. He just stood there staring at me.

I scanned the leaves for any moment, and listened. I looked all around me. I had no idea where the mother bear was. I really didn't want to be between the mother and her cub.

After some minutes, the bear disappeared into the woods. I still didn't move. I just stood there, listening. After some time passed and I didn't hear mom, I walked forward. I've read that you are supposed to speak loudly enough for the bear to hear you, and in a calm tone. I decided to sing "This Old Man" and "God Bless America." And I survived to report it here.

Again, it was an overcast day, and mist fell almost the whole time, but the strangest thing happened. And it was wonderful.

I was standing next to a grassy field I've stood next to hundreds of times. And I *saw* birds. Three dimensional, stationary, brightly colored birds. And not just that. I saw a bluebird, a goldfinch, and a scarlet tanager, all at once. All together. That's just never happened to me before: yellow, blue, and red. The primary colors. All right there in front of me. Posing. Not flying away. The goldfinch and the bluebird were on different branches of the same tree. The scarlet tanager was right behind them in another tree.

The icing on the cake – during the whole hike I was being serenaded by wood thrush and veery, the two most beautiful singers among North American birds.

There were also very visible hooded warbler, yellowthroat, indigo bunting, and, of course, cardinals: more yellow, blue and red.

Look – these aren't rare birds. You might see any of them on any hike at Skylands. But to see them all so distinctly on a rainy day before a scary medical appointment was such a blessing.

Yes, I'm doing all this alone, I always have, and I do feel pretty low.

But I walk out my door, and there it all is. And it is brightly colored, plump, and posing generously so I can get a good long look. At least it was on this day, and that felt like the miracle I needed to go on.

You can hear a wood thrush here:

You can read more about structure, color, and birds' feathers here:



  1. I enjoyed reading this. Birding really puts me in a peaceful zone.Great photos here and hearing the veery took me right back to waking up in my tent being serenaded by these birds in the early hours of the day.Wish you recovery and health.

  2. I never go hiking alone anymore because of the bear but I make sure we're talking & making noise to scare them away. By the way there are bear by the reservoir near Berkeley College in Garrett Mtn.