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Crazy Hair à la Mergansers

Ever since last October, when my niece painted our president’s head onto a pumpkin, I’ve been ruminating on posting this. But I have some misgivings that kept me delaying it. So, let me get them out first. Please, don’t think any less of the beautiful mergansers after you finish reading it.

My niece’s choice of subject for her art reminded me of a photo I saw in the newspaper more than a year ago (before my home delivery turned into digital subscription). It showed Mr. Trump’s hair rather long, reaching down until its tips rested on his suit jacket’s collar. I was surprised by this “untidiness” which few businessmen or politicians would sport in the US. At the same time, his hair in profile evoked a sense of familiarity in me, but with what? I couldn’t pinpoint the source of déjà vu immediately.

After flipping the newspaper page back again, and giving the photo several more stares, it dawned on me: Merganser!

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A quick search on the internet made me realize I am far …
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Wren around the House

There are three birds that occur in my area whose common names feature “house” as a descriptor: House Sparrow, House Finch, and House Wren.

In my experience, the distribution of these three “house birds” seems to follow the pattern of population density. House Sparrow is an introduced species from Europe, and like humans who immigrated to the New World, it has adapted well to life in towns and cities. As urban concentration of houses thins out toward the suburbs, House Sparrows are gradually replaced by House Finches. As to House Wrens, they don’t come into view until we reach the rural country.

That last point may not be true in other regions. A friend who lived in Missouri told me that House Wren would nest anywhere, even under your car if you didn’t drive the car for a day. I’ve never experienced such abundance of House Wren. My single encounter of a House Wren near any house happened just this year on a trip to Sierra Valley. At the “ranch” where we stayed, a family of House Wrens…

Gazing at White-tailed Ptarmigan

During the Perseid meteor shower, the high Sierra is one of the best places to see stars shooting across the night sky. Even at nights when the moon shines brightly, you can still be astonished by a few brilliant meteors streaking overhead. In 2015, the situation was different. Wild fires on the other side of the Sierra sent smoke over high peaks, and veiled the sun during the day and the stars during the night. I was in Dusy Basin with my camping pal at the time; one morning we found specks of fine ash covering the ground, the lake and our tents.

We didn’t see any meteor that August. But we saw something else that delighted us.

On our way out, we could smell the scorched wood in the air as we climbed up from the lake where we had camped for several days and headed toward Bishop Pass. It was our habit to avoid the dusty trail whenever we could in the wilderness. So we threaded our way in a gradual upslope hike over rock terraces of alpine flowers. Suddenly we heard a soft high-pitch…

Duck Hawk

On the Fourth of July this year a young Osprey died. A week later a young Peregrine Falcon died. The two incidents took place just a few miles from each other. Both birds were less than two months old, and had taken their first flights under watchful eyes of humans. Local Audubon Society had two cameras on the osprey nest, and volunteers were posted by the tower where the peregrine was hatched.

I had a brief encounter with Lux (the juvenile falcon that died later) on the evening of July 5, the day before she took her first leap into the air. She was on Campanile, the clock tower at the center of UC Berkeley campus. The tower rose 307 feet against the blue sky, showed its usual serene façade, and revealed nothing about a raptor's nest until the insistent high-pitched scratchy calls near the top broke through the summer lull. Even with one ear plugged up due to a cold, I could hear her loud and clear.



It saddened me to learn that Lux died bumping into a window in the building next t…

Peacock

"At first, the peacock, with his gorgeous train, demands our attention; but, like most of the gaudy birds, his notes are grating and shocking to the ear: the yelling of cats, and the braying of an ass, are not more disgustful." Letter XLIII. Sept 9, 1778. The Natural History of Selborne.

My friend living on Oakland hills in a neighborhood with yard-raised peafowl would absolutely agree with this description by Gilbert White.
After celebrating Henry David Thoreau's 200th birthday several days ago, I want to mark another occasion today: the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death. Austen didn't mention birds much in her novels other than game birds for hunting and partridge for table. Yet Pride and Prejudice has been associated with the bird peacock because of beautiful cover designs. Jane Austen lived only a few miles from Selborne--there goes the connection to Gilbert White; therefore the peacock quote.
That peacock graces Austen's book covers is obviously n…

Common Loon of Walden Pond

22 years ago I made my pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts as the leaves turned color. Not only was Walden Pond much bigger than I had imagined, but I was shocked by a bathhouse on the shore, having envisioned a pond in the wilderness. It took me quite some time to circle the lake by foot. I don’t remember seeing a loon there. Several years later one summer in northern Maine, I heard my first laughter of a Common Loon. The moment I heard it I knew what it was, thanks to the description by Henry David Thoreau.

“As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settled down on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one…set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself….His usual note was the demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a water-fowl; but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully, and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably mo…