"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Salvation in the Deer Stand-

I’m not much of a church goer.--at least, not in the traditional sense.  You see, every since I was held hostage as a child in a rock-hard pew listening to some preacher spew an hour of hellfire and damnation that scared “goodness “ and “salvation” into me every first Sunday, I have largely stayed away from the four-walls of worship.  Not that I don’t find value in going there sometimes, but there’s something confining about it to me.  I can’t seem to get my head around an omnipotent being confining itself to a single book, building or way of thinking. 

People often mistake my avoidance and philosophy as a sure sign of my impending damnation to a not so nice place pain and torture.  Drew hell-bound to Dante’s inferno.  Not a pleasant thought. 


I hold my spiritual beliefs largely close to vest as they are somewhat unconventional. People like labels. I tend not to.  I was raised in the Black Baptist Church and with that background, which brought to me some wonderful things like a sense of community and history, there were some unsettling things like not asking questions of your maker and resigning oneself to whatever human fate, good, bad or otherwise that came— and to wait on something better in a paradise not promised. So technically, I suppose I am still Baptist. Some of it is rooted deeply in me like the taproot of an oak. But then, my branches have found other light, growing upward, outward, crookedly and circuitously. Kind of like my favorite tree, the Sycamore-all splotchy-barked and growing in wild places.  For now I call myself a Zen- Methodist.  I sometimes attend a United Methodist church that is as open-minded as I’ve known.  My good friend Lane, a United Methodist Campus Minister says that I’m not required to check my brain at the door. I like that.  I think my Creator meant for me to use it. A string of tattering prayer flags hangs across my backyard and I believe that Jesus and I would’ve gotten along well over a cold one. Wine-beer--where two or more gather right?  I’d much rather share the suds with him than some blowhard Texas politician anyway.

 
 Given my penchant for thinking about the unity of nature and divinity, some would call me an animist, an agnostic, an atheist  or even a Wiccan.  Whatever label anyone chooses to tag me with, I know this-- I do believe.  In what you may ask, do you believe? Hmmmm…I choose to let that question dangle loosely.  My brother says that his religion is governed by gravity and evolution.  Neither he says, requires him to believe anything.  All things fall and all living things evolve.  Period. That he says, is the ultimate omnipotence. He has a point.


Today, as I ventured out to my Mother’s old Home Place to check on the Greenwood property and sit for a while in the pew/therapist chair that  my deer stand frequently becomes,  the colonnades of loblolly pines stretching to  hold up the cerulean sky were wall enough for me. I helped build this sanctuary, selectively logging and managing it for sacred things like bobwhite quail and bobcats. 


Though no other humans accompanied me today I was not alone.  There were choristers that I’m certain Ms. Emily Dickinson would have admired. There were wrens and woodpeckers and thrushes and towhees. None of them wore robes or sang from sheets of music. No, instead they shouldered cloaks of feathers and chipped, whistled and warbled songs of evolved adoration to the air that gave them breath.   Evidence of my brother’s faith in gravity was in full effect today too as I witnessed the power of 9.8m/sec2 (that's 32 feet/sec2 for you metric system backsliders).  Several large pines, including one that I’d attached a ladder stand to, had fallen victim to a force that will have the final say with us all.  Apparently a strong north wind had pronounced judgment day on several sylvan beings that had done nothing, other than be shallow rooted, to deserve such a fate. The weather giveth and the weather taketh away I suppose. I’m glad I wasn’t there when the wind’s rapture came for them.  


 I didn’t see any deer today but my faith in their being never faltered.  There were signs, maybe divine, maybe not—of their presence—cloven tracks here, a greenbrier nipped neatly there.   


 Gray squirrels scurried about, collecting some sort of offering I think –acorns, hickory nuts and such, that they would share with no one. Is there such a thing as Sciurid sin?  Do squirrels abide by any commandments other than –“Thou shalt not forget whither thou hidest the bounty” or “Thou shalt make the utmost effort to sound deer-like, lest the hunter shall be fooled”?

 As the sun walked its way west around me, shining what must surely be holy rays of light on everything in the forest, my worries, frustrations, anger and sadness slowly ebbed away. The way the golden, afternoon light shifted between the trees and pulled the shadows with it, there was no question of something greater than me at work. Besides the squirrel that found and scolded me for my afternoon deer stand sloth, there was no judgment or damnation. A circling red-tailed hawk screamed praise to the uplift of unseen thermals and a flock of mourning doves peaceably found a feast to feed their multitudes amongst the broomsedge browned by the frost. 


I sat there, twenty feet closer to heaven today by some folks reasoning.  Maybe, but I’d like to think that I was already there--saved in the stand.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Deer Hunting Pas de Deux


The grand assignment in my Hunting and Wildlife Management class is for the class to photo document an outdoor (hopefully hunting  but not required) experience.  The idea is for them to take a few evocative photos, link them with some thoughtful words and voila!  a digital story that binds together the lessons of science, management, conservation ethic and self-introspection that we discussed during the lectures.  The experience might be with a rifle over a greenfield in the fading evening or maybe waiting with a four-footed, retrieving friend for the first flocks to descend to the decoys in the new light of a marsh morning.  Perhaps the weapon of choice will not shoot bullets or arrows but rather capture light to portray the scene in pixels.  Cameras work just fine from a hunting blind.  In any case, I simply want the students to think differently about what it is that we do as hunters.  I want them to think about killing and what it means and the honor and responsibility that comes with it.
And so we’ve talked about the coyote conundrum that now sits squarely in front of many southeastern hunters-to kill or not to kill? We connected the query with the science that says song dogs are taking a significant toll on fawn recruitment in some places. We then took a look at the data that also says that where coyotes abound in some areas, the numbers of nest raiding, songbird killing meso-predators like feral cats and raccoons go down while the populations of bramble loving birds increase.  So then the question is this: as one sits on a deer stand, anxious for the opportunity at a thick-necked buck or a wary doe, when a coyote pair traces the trail where the whitetails will come, do I shoulder and shoot or do I watch and wonder?  What about the quail hunter trying desperately to keep the coveys on the home place?  Certainly fewer raiding raccoons and cotton rats might mean more plaintive “Poor-Bob-White” whistles in the piney woods. If coyotes mean more coveys, then what—do I shoot or say thanks? We ultimately connected the question to Aldo’s  “ fierce green fire” and the question of what predators mean to hunters and to the herd and the flock.  Some good discussion ensued from these and like issues.  There are no definitive answers that I expect from the dozen young men I have in the class. I’m simply looking for thoughtful responses to the serious issue of taking lives.

I think though, when I asked the students to write hunting haiku for this week, that I may have lost a little bit of traction. I think many of the students would’ve rather I asked them to eat road-killed skunk. We shall see if I can truly influence a different mode of thinking in these “good ol’ boys!”  I’d like to imagine that one day in the turkey woods  or perhaps sitting around the hunt camp card table after a day in the deer stand that  one of them will be brave enough to let the verse flow as hunters always have.

Deer in graying coats
Shadows slide to nose the wind
Hermit thrushes call
--jdl

 Hunting is something that I truly enjoy doing on my own.  While hunting with a buddy is fun and offers the opportunity to be in the woods with another kindred spirit, I relish the time alone with my thoughts and the wild things.  The other day, I had the opportunity to go hunting with a young man, Brian, who defines himself appropriately as an “eager student”.  I can vouch for his zeal because from day one in the hunting class, he has been conversive and even shared articles and books he’s reading with the class. He’s taken the initiative to visit my office and exchange ideas on animal rights, outdoor ethics and all the confusing and controversial  things that might fall in the philosophical chasm between those two hot button issues. A future veterinarian, Brian has a different slant on things—I’m not sure if he is right or left on the issues but I can definitely tell that he is centered in his ethic and thought about what hunting should be. He is what I hope the future of hunting looks like.
 
Brian is a Floridian and self-described novice hunter, even though he has been deer hunting once and on that hunt, killed a large, mature buck within an hour of sitting on the stand.  But even with the antlers of a trophy already on his wall, he yearns to learn more.  Having made the decision to become a veterinarian and dedicate himself to saving the lives of animals, I find it intriguing that this thoughtful young man has so dedicated himself to the hunt and ethical consideration of life saving --and ending  that he seeks information and inspiration with his brains tied to books with the same zeal  a rutting buck chases the ripening  on the wind.  And so as the other students found their way to familiar grounds—hunt clubs and home places—to  complete their respective assignments, Brian approached me to ask for a place to hunt and if perhaps he might accompany me on an outing.  After wrangling back and forth over a couple of weeks to get our schedules meshed, Brian and I headed out one afternoon to test the November woods for whitetails.

After a few days of warm weather that was more May than November, things were cooling a bit and I thought that maybe it was a good day to get out.  I met Brian off campus and we were off.   On the way to the hunting spot, we talked about everything from the coyote issue to conservation in the Obama administration.  Brian spoke enthusiastically about his desire to learn about where his food comes from and how his young conservation ethic has been informed more by an avaricious appetite for the written word and not so much by experience.  Just the day before he told me that in order to gain experience with how a hog becomes pork, he’d participated in the slaughter and butchering process in a “meat lab” to understand how things happened.  Brian asked lots of questions.  A few had simple  answers  but many were more difficult to respond to.  There was nothing that I said that went unchallenged or unquestioned.  There was no “just because Dr. Lanham said it was so” acceptance.  How refreshing!  Here was a college student taking full advantage of the time in his life where questioning costs very little. The conversation flowed so freely that before I knew it, we were there.  Donning the necessary garb for the day, covering ourselves in camo, securing cameras, cell phones, grunt calls and shouldering our rifles, we were off.

Hunting the day before Thanksgiving is somewhat of a tradition for me. The cooler weather that had broken behind the rain put me more into the mood of that tradition. The wind was picking up and in our faces. It felt like hunting should feel.  As Brian and I tracked down the old dirt road, I was happy to share what I knew of the place’s ecology with him.  I pointed out the small tracks of doe and young deer at a mud puddle and the faint trail they left through the woods.  We paused to look at old, dormant scrapes, disappearing from the rain and under the leaf fall.  There was fresh buck sign too and Brian smiled broadly at the sight of what he said was his first active scrape.  He was a quick study and soon began to identify the telltale lick branches hanging over the trail for himself.  We were intent on getting to the stands in bottom but took our time to whisper over the difference between squirrel acorn scramblings and wild turkey scratching. There were bird calls to be learned and Brian’s sponge of a brain soaked it all in.
 
Finally at the stand, I helped Brian attach his 12 gauge to the pull up rope and watched him climb up and latch in with the safety harness I’d given him.  I stressed safety first and ever the good student, he was cautious with every step and followed the directions to a tee.  I left him with a thumbs up and whispered “good hunting” to ascend to my own perch.


I climbed a lonely shortleaf pine on the bottom bluff, overlooking a thick patch of privet.  Behind and to the right of Brian by maybe 50 yards, I had assured him of our exclusive firing zones.  I’d also let him know that we could communicate with whistled quail calls if something interesting was going on.  Of course, we also had our technology with us and I had Brian program my number into his I-phone so that we could whisper to one another through the magic of the touchpad screen.


 Once up, I looked back at Brian and he seemed at home; a tree bound lump of camouflage, curiosity and confidence sitting twenty feet above the forest floor.
 It was still early afternoon when we settled in. The wind behind the front seemed intent on making things difficult to hear or see.  We spent the first hour listening to the bare-boned  trees complaining and watching squirrels go about their absent-minded- acorn- hoarding –business.  A pair of wild turkeys came emerged out of the shadows like two black, feathered ghosts.  Jakes I think, they quietly made their way between our two stands getting close enough for me to see their wariness in wattles that glowed warmly in the limited light of the river bottom.  My poor attempt at a yelp put them on alert and they walked away from me, knowing that something was just not right.  I texted Brian “turkeys—coming ur way” to let him know that the birds were in the neighborhood. He wrote back “cool I thought I heard them”.  That was the peak of excitement for a few hours as we waited for a whitetail to wind its way into our path of wanting. 
Beyond those initial adrenalin filled minutes when the hope of the hunt is all bundled up in nerves and anticipation; when the turn of a leaf might be an ear swiveling or the scamper of a squirrel might be hooves shuffling, there was little else beyond the bird watching to fill the time until dusk and the magic hour.  The birds were a reprieve —red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, ruby-crowned kinglets, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, American crows, wild turkeys, Carolina wrens, and white-throated sparrows became more active as the light shrank.  As the avian activity reached a crescendo, we both hoped for more. But whatever more is beyond the birds and being in such a beautiful place did not come. Waiting and hoping-- this is what I know hunting to be.  On the best days it is a hope that a hypothesis of place and time and dumb luck come together in a magical moment of watching and maybe a shot.  There was a moment when Brian saw a doe in the distance heading away from us.  I imagine that his heart raced at the sight of her lithe form and maybe a lump lodged in his throat as he watched her slither out of sight.   He whistled, rather dryly, to signal her presence and followed up with a text  “Female I think 300 yards she jumped before I could get a clear look”.
 As the daylight in the bottom faded beyond any ethical shot, and the river kept its appointment to be somewhere else south of us, a distant flock of turkeys yelped good night and flew noisily up to roost somewhere upstream.  Brian and I climbed down and found our way silently out of the woods. I always imagine that in those trips out at dark-thirty that the deer are watching and waiting for the intruders to leave so that they can party the night away, leaping and prancing in the moonlit shadows, laughing at the stinking, two-legged fools who think that the camouflage hides them.


My fear in the hunting pas de deux with Brian was that he would find it somehow boring or uninspiring.  I thought that perhaps all that time in the stand, almost four hours, without a parade of deer marching in front of the stand with trophy racks displayed for his choosing –like they show on all the television shows that make hunting look so simple--would disappoint the eager student to not want to do it again.  I feared that maybe the wind, colder and more biting than I thought it would be would discourage him.  In the bobbing light of my headlamp, Brian and I detached our gear, unloaded the guns and left the woods to the whitetails.


I was wrong about Brian.  His patience, calm and curiosity stretched way beyond the one hunt he’d ever experienced. If he thanked me once, he thanked me a hundred times for the opportunity to be out there. I’m not sure anyone has ever shown more appreciation for time spent in the deer woods without a kill to show for it than Brian. The absence of antlers didn’t faze him. He wanted to learn about everything.  His enthusiasm for the art and science of hunting coupled with his desire to do things the right way made the day one I will not soon forget.  In a couple of years, animals will owe their lives to Brian Lang, DVM.  Those whose lives he saves as a veterinarian as well as those he conscientiously kills on the hunt will have the respect of a healer and hunter whose head and heart are in perfect rhythm. I think we “danced” well together on that afternoon in the deer woods.  I hope to do it again someday. Thanks Brian for being such an “eager student”.
Don’t ever stop the beautiful dancing between your head and your heart.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Killing Thoughts


I watched it gasp until the last; legs scissoring against the air, gaining a foothold on nothing except the remains of life that ebbed from its body.  

As I watched the little deer die, I felt the bittersweet tinge of remorse I always feel as a hunter.  Killing is a hard thing.  I’ve killed thirteen deer now and in all those times, the feelings of seeing something once alive, dead or dying at my hands are complex.  Sure, I was out here with the intent to kill.  Not to harvest mind you—but to kill.  Wild things shouldn’t be insulted by the sanitized, mechanized idea of planting and picking. Hunters kill, they do not harvest. And so in that hunting I look for sign—the cloven trace of tracks in the mud, the worn trails through the woods; the lamp-like blaze of a tree trunk rubbed bare or the sign posts of musky soil pawed underneath a branch chewed to frazzle.  All of these are things I seek to lead to me the most likely place to sit and wait—and kill. It is hunting and I relish the opportunity to do so.  It is fully premeditated –purposefully planned with the intent to ultimately watch what was unfolding before me.  And so why did the lump lingering in my throat not dissolve confidently to the resolve of a thing done right?  Why was I regretting the fatal calculus of the accurately placed cross hairs; the .308- 150 grain copper bullet and the easy pull of the little Savage Model 10’s firm trigger?

  I didn’t feel the recoil.  I never seem to.  The rifles report still rang in my ears though and the flock of chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets that had noisily invaded my tree just moment before had flown away. There was the firecracker-Fourth of July smell of gunpowder that lingered beyond the sound of the shot and birdsong. And there was the sound of leaves falling and a deer dying. 

I sat there, watching it kick. Watching it gasp for breaths that were becoming shallower and shallower. The tarsal gland on the little deer’s hocks was erect and white as a boll of cotton. Its white tail flipped weakly but would warn nothing anymore. And the blood pumped out from the mortal neck wound, redder than blood I thought. It was fresh with oxygen spent from the little deer’s body.  The bullet found the mark I set it on and had done its work to efficient end.  The lump in my throat lingered. Life was over for the little deer.  Did I need to end it still?

I’d hurried out here, to the local property to hunt because the weather was turning and it felt to me like the deer might appreciate the fall to cooler weather. The hunting has been limited this year with travel to places far away from the deer woods at the times when the deer folk are romancing.  Just last week, I was celebrating life in spades—bird spades- “deep in the heart of Texas”.  Everywhere I looked there were new feathered things to see-flitting, flying, swooping, swimming and soaring.  The part of me that stalks with binoculars with only the listing intent was sated in the watching.  Although I saw raptors hunting to kill there was no lump in my throat for the slow sparrows or careless field mice that would die to make more Aplomado falcon or northern harrier.  And so why was I feeling this now?

The hurry to get out there; my decision to set up on a place where the tracks littered the muddy track and my lack of “luck” on the few forays I’d made into the deer woods had lead to this.  I eschewed the convenience of my ladder stand to climb up a spindly loblolly a short ten minute walk from the truck to put me on top of a trail where a couple of deer had sneaked in behind me a  couple of weeks before. I wouldn’t be fooled again with deer slipping out the backdoor. I’d rationalized that walking all the way down to the river bottom where I believe a mature buck skulks and hides in the cane and privet tangles was not worth the effort today.  Last I checked the freezer the supply of sausage and burger was almost gone.  Today needed to be something more than hopeful for horns (I know, antlers correctly).  Today was a set up for “success” if such a thing can be defined by killing.  But there I was, up there watching my “success” flail at the last tethers of life; eyes fixed staring to nowhere; blood pooling on the clay.

Maybe it was because it had been so easy. I’d been in the stand less than an hour and there was a dead deer on the ground.  Maybe it was because I’d made such a science of the thing.  The wind had been in my face.  I’d gone in mid-afternoon-scurrying away from work and responsibility to get into the woods at an odd early afternoon hour.  I climbed in a different place on top of a trail that I more than suspected the deer would use.  And then I’d hung a little wick of scent—doe urine—on the branch in front of me to cover and entice. And then I sat back, watched the squirrels scamper the day away, and wondered almost aloud if the deer would be too close to shoot. Truthfully, this was a perfect setup for someone with the archer’s skill. But I had a gun. 
After a half hour in the stand, the quarrelsome crows that kept flying back and forth and the lisps of the feeding flock of songbirds that loitered around the edges of the old logging deck where I’d set up this ambush no longer held my attention. Maybe it was the MSG from the sesame chicken or the simple peace that overcomes me when I get into a tree stand that caused me to drift off.  But I closed my eyes, half-slept—half daydreamed and all the way relaxed. The squirrels stirring were obviously not deer—too sporadic too light afoot. I dozed.  The chickadees called and the ruby-crowned kinglets chattered. I peeked through the slits of my sleepy eyes and the leaves fell in the slight breeze blowing across my face and the tiring sun, taking scent to the trail according to plan. I dozed. And then, there was something there that was different. I knew before I opened my eyes. There in the woods, winding its way through the wisps of pine saplings was a deer. I was fully awake now.

The deer was small and it stepped with caution like deer folk on alert do. Its tail was tucked nervously and it bobbed and weaved in the piney shadows trying to catch scent or sight or sound of something.  I shifted when it looked elsewhere or stepped behind a tree. I reminded myself of the plan for venison and eased the safety off. It knew that something was different, that the opening it was used to crossing was heavy with another scent—another’s presence.  Deer, contrary to myth, do look up and this one did-right at me. I looked away so that the predator’s stare didn’t give me away. The little deer—maybe a small doe—was growing more nervous by the second. It looked at me and tasted the wind.  Another second or two, another molecule of the wrong tint, a glint off my glasses and there would be a snort and white flag waving in the woods. When it stepped behind the next tree, I placed the crosshairs at the base of its neck.

The deer didn’t drop as I’d expected it to. Instead, it plowed forward in an awkward and violent dash to escape but without its front legs that would have just moments before taken it in lightening quick leaps to safety in some darkening tanglewood. My aim had been true and now I watched the result.  The little deer came to rest in front of me; kicking, flailing, pawing, gasping, bleeding—dying. I watched it all with the lump in my throat going nowhere.


 For those who’ve not know this feeling, you don’t stand guiltless. The ribeye that was once a steer bled when the captive bolt dropped it to its knees in the kill pen.  And the acres of soybeans that were once forest or prairie along with the highways, tractors, trucks and processing facilities it takes to make tofu shed blood too. For me, here, on this day—death was not some distant thing done by someone else or resolved by a piously “greener” lifestyle, it was my deed. That the life ending not fifty feet in front of me was that of a yearling buck, hair covered knobs clear now in the light of the fading day was a mistake of sorts.  “Buttons” are supposed to be off limits by those in the know.  They are the princes of the woods and if left to grow will maybe become the heavy antlered bucks that will create much angst and admiration. The stickers on my pickup window claim that I hunt “quality” deer.  Was this such a deer? There were no heavy antlers, swollen neck or musky hocks to brag about.  But it was a life, valuable by no less measure of blood pumping out than I now witnessed. There was flesh too.  Not as much of it as from a mature deer but it is sacred in its origin and will sustain no less than another’s flesh and certainly way more than antlers ever could. My remorse was born I think of killing so easily and with such efficient calculation. Maybe it was that I had killed a youngling that maybe didn’t have a chance to learn better. Perhaps I should’ve guessed by the solitary and unsure behavior that this was a young male, silly with curiosity. But I do know that it’s the way of things in the woods. Young, old and infirmed find themselves in such dire straits—by tooth, claw, talon or time.

 I hunt and will continue to proudly do so. The lump in my throat slowly found its way south and I resolved the guilt with what my expectations as a hunter and human being are.  The death that I caused and the life I watched ebb away into the clay will likely be lapped at by coyotes tonight under a waning moon. The venison will be in the freezer in a few days. There will be joy and reflection in the feasting—and life regained too. My questioning will continue, as I believe it should with all killing that comes from the hunt. Life ending by any means we cause should require that. If and when that questioning ends, whether it be with a doe’s lithe form lying in a weedy fallow field or a buck’s burly one resting fatally in the fallen autumn leaves, the blood staining the scene ought always give us pause.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Down to the River!


In the second grade, a matronly teacher with cat eye glasses and a salt and pepper bouffant changed my life.  As I sat at the little desk swooning in the vapors of the blue mimeograhic ink, Mrs. Beasley (yes that was actually her name)  slid a damp sheet of paper in front of each student.  On each page there was an outline of a mockingbird.  My desk mate Francis, eagerly took out her box of big waxy crayons and to my horror began to color the bird green, purple and orange.  Everyone else around me seemed to do the same.  I was shocked!   Didn’t every eight year old know that a mockingbird was supposed to be subtly shaded in tones of gray, black and white?  I took my fat red primary school pencil and did the bird justice.  There it was, sitting on the paper ready to sing in triplicate. Mrs. Beasley noticed and showed the picture to the class. On library days, she let me venture into the nether regions of the Millbrook Elementary book stacks to seek out field guides and other birdy books. For me it was where the real wild things were!  Her attention to my unimaginative but accurate portrayal of a bird was the essential nurturing  of an obsession that possesses me to this day. Thanks  Mrs. Beasley!


 My trip last week to Harlingen, Texas and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival  (RGVBF) is in some ways the fullest expression of my ornithological obsession.  As I flew the second leg of my flight from Houston to the extreme southern tip of the Lone Star State, the muted browns and faded greens of the flattened, coastal plain landscape underneath the wings of the silver bird carrying me looked like anything but a bird Mecca. I must admit that  South Texas from 25,000 feet is none too impressive. But looks can be deceiving.  I knew from a couple of previous trips to the valley what riches lay in store amidst the pans, resacas, and coastal scrub forests of what really is in effect, sub-tropical  Mexico.




One of the biggest birding festivals in the world, the  18 year old RGVBF  pulls in hundreds of avid birders from around the world. While I was there I met enthusiasts from Denmark, England, Maine, California and many points in between.  The big business of birding is on gaudy display in South Texas.    When huge banners proudly announce the festival across streets and in the airport, you’re officially a big deal.  Folks down there don’t seem to mind groups of people walking about with binoculars in search of things with odd sounding names like “rose-throated becard” or “common paraque”. The acceptance of the invasion is in no small part due to the fact that the event l is an engine that helps to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into a Texas economy that recognizes the value of  wildlife watching—so much so that the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail is the model for how birding should be promoted to the masses as a way to bolster both economy and ecology in a state where oil and agriculture otherwise rule the roost.


 And so there I was, for the second year, along with my Sky Dawg brethren, Paul Baicich, Dudley Edmundson, Douglas Gray, Dave Magpiong and  Roy Rodriguez, (Dr. J-Jeremiah Alexander couldn’t make it this year)  searching not very far and not very wide for all of the birds that funnel into the Rio Grande Valley like so much avian gold.  The birds not only pull in the people who want to add new birds to their life lists, they pull in the “Who’s Who” of pro-birders—those who count their lists near capacity in many places but are addicted to the chances at feathered things that drift northward across the Rio or vagrants that get pushed by wind or wandering to gather in hotspots like Bentsen Rio, Sabal Palm, or Laguna Atascosa. The list of birders with more birds seen than missed is impressive.  Sitting in the leaders meeting with so many bird-brains is always a humbling experience.  As I sit among and lead beside the “big guns”, I try to learn the little tricks of the trade –how a primary feather projection here or a wing bar there differentiates one confusing feathered  thing from another.

Roy Rodriguez--Pro Birder,Valley Resident-Sky Dawg!
 Clouds and cool rain greeted us on the first morning.  Not the best birding weather, it was good for a place that’s been locked in drought and heat for over a year.  On that first day out “leading” on a valley raptor tour with Bill Clark, the man who literally wrote the book on the identification of birds of prey, the day was filled hawk-filled. White-tailed hawks with their telltale crisp white bellies soared over fire blackened cane fields while below them several  white-tails in various plumages and a lone Swainson’s hawk, loitering on its trip to South America, shared a lunch of roasted rodents and grasshoppers with turkey and black vultures. All along the roads chocolate –colored Harris’ Hawks, the most social of the soarers, perched sentry-like on phone poles. The red-tails and red-shouldered hawks that make up the majority of the raptor fauna here in South Carolina were just also rans in South Texas and made sporadic cameos among the southwest specialties.  American Kestrels adorned the phone lines like feathered ornaments Loggerhead shrikes—black and white songbirds with hawk hearts—were everywhere-and a welcome sight as they become rarer across most of their range. Cooper’s and sharpies darted out of the forest edges giving micro-second looks at clues to their quick-silver identities. Northern harriers banked and twisted gracefully in the wind. The cherry topping on the day was a pair of endangered Aplomado falcons, holding court over an expanse of pasture and yucca-studded scrub. On Old Port Isabel Road, they share their kingdom with cattle and seem to be doing well there. Everything else that day was gravy. I must admit that every time things flitted out of the ditches or from one grassy tussock to another. I tried to identify  them.  But as we focused skyward for soarers Bill acknowledged that on that day that they were just raptor food. In a place so populated with predators, I wondered how any rodent dared venture above ground or songbird braved the same airspace.  
Mr. and Ms. Gray looking for Grayhawk!




The Aplomado Glow!
That was just day one. It was relaxed compared to what was to come. The fury that valley  birding can turn into was exemplified on the second morning on the river in a little town called SalineƱo.  As the group wound its way down a dirt road to the ribbon of water that divides the people and politics of Mexico and the U.S., the birds seemed to pay not so much attention to the border.  Mottled ducks coursed up and down the river, a ringed kingfisher hulked over a shoal of fish and neotropic cormorants flew in squadrons in all directions. As quick as someone would call out a species—“green kingfisher at twelve o’clock in the willow” there was another: “kiskadee in the snag!” or “osprey downriver”.  We were birding but even a bobcat that the Border Patrol somehow missed made its way across the river—going south into Mexico. The morning’s list was rounded out with  too many birds to name but some of the notables included Inca doves, a dickcissel, verdin, golden-fronted woodpeckers, gadwall, pintails, white pelicans, Nashville warblers, Bewick’s wrens, green jays.  As all of the feathered fury was flying, chirping and chipping around us, a lone bird appeared in the crown of a tree.  Without thinking I called out- “Red-billed pigeon!” It was a lifer for almost everyone, including me. It’s been a good year for western birds in the Valley and a spotted towhee put in an appearance to add to the list. We finished the morning at Cheryl’s  feeders with field guide stunning looks at a pair of creamsicle orange Audubon’s orioles  and lemon yellow hooded orioles. A pyrrhuloxia, seemingly shier than it’s more vibrant cardinal cousin and an equally shy white-tipped dove put in stage-frightened appearances too.  The green jays, some of the most beautiful bird jewels in their own rights, are common as dirt in South Texas. Somehow though, they insist on being seen and I’m sure most didn’t mind the attention they constantly sought.

The days were long in South Texas and bird filled.  Waking at 3:30 and hitting the bed at eleven on most nights will take it out of you but I wouldn’t trade the exhaustion for anything. Mary Gustafson, who organizes the festival leaders, was gracious in inviting me and a couple of my Sky Dawg brothers  to join the tour leaders a year ago.  In that role as leader, I see my job as not just pointing out birds to species hungry listers, but also to provide insight into the lives of the birds and how they fit into the environment.  Being a conservationist, I hope that in the midst of all the listing that the message of habitat management and compromise in what and where we build and develop gets through as the  key to all the joy that the birds bring wherever we watch them.  Whether in South Texas or in South Carolina, what we do upstream or in our backyards ultimately affects what happens elsewhere.  I tried to slip the message in here and there. A little tidbit to go with your titmouse!
Picking through shorebirds at Boca Chica
  On my final day in the Valley,  we visited the Southmost Preserve, an expanse of over one thousand acres where wood storks, roseate spoonbills and a host of other birds have been largely excluded from the casual birders trip list.  The Nature Conservancy mixes agriculture and avian conservation here with obvious success.  Amidst citrus groves, Neotropical migrants, western vagrants and South Texas residents mix together in flocks that swell the list.  That night, I rejoined the Dawgs for a Becard chase at Estero Llano Grande. The becard was nowhere to be found but we found other treasures.  Common Paraques roosting on the ground in perfect  leafy camouflage were so close that I could count the rectal bristles and see them blinking their eyes as they dreamed whatever goatsuckers dream about.  A scissor-tailed flycatcher posed perfectly against the South Texas sky, it’s salmon flanks and armpits startlingly scarlet as it lifted into the evening air to do its namesake job. The reclaimed and constructed wetlands at the park were filled with waterfowl; blue and green-winged teal, northern shovelers, gadwall, widgeon and black-bellied whistling ducks.  As the moon rose to take it’s shift in the sky from the sun, we made our way back to the parking lot with coyote song accompanying the good feelings.

Resaca with woodstorks & roseate spoonbills at Southmost
I left South Texas a couple of days earlier to get back to the “real” world but I will return.  In the flurry of frenzied birding  that one experiences on such a trip, there is so much more to be had than lifers.  On my last night, the Sky Dawgs gathered for a few well-earned cervezas.  We even recruited a future Dawg--Ray B.  A youngster in his early twenties, Ray was ticking birds off in reflected surfaces like it was nothing.  It was like having matrix birder on board!  He fit in with the old Dawgs easily and I think he just might make the team. Richard Crossley (http://www.amazon.com/Crossley-ID-Guide-Eastern-Birds/dp/0691147787  )  joined us too and we debated the future of birding and best dessert. The company and the conversation was as good as any birding.  People ultimately make the birding good in South Texas and there are plenty of good human beings to put on the list along with the feathered ones. Until next year Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival! Adios!
The Sky Dawgs checking out waterfowl at Estero Llano Grande
 

 Next festival stop—Duluth and the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival! Sub-zero temperatures and snow to go with the great grays, northern hawks, snowies,  rough-leggeds,  redpolls, snow buntings, pine grosbeaks and of course those ubiquitously curious  masters of mischief, common ravens –affectionately known to my brothers  as Sky Dawgs. Minnesota here we come!

The Sky Dawgs Official Logo-Thanks Paul!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Falling for New York

Just a few days ago I found myself deep in the deer woods, reveling in the majesty of the autumn morning, hoping for the chance to take a deer, but really there just to be.  The serenity of a place with so many non-human beings re-centers me.  The time in solitude with songbirds and all the other wild things is where I am boiled down to some essential syrup.  Most often, I do not exit the woods with game, but I do leave with something that nourishes the soul more than any back-strap ever could. I’m inclined more and more to go just to sit sometimes with no intent to do anything except be there.  Again, expecting nothing usually brings a bounty.

But I am also realizing that in order for the time in the woods to remain meaningful, those of us who enjoy time “out there” have to get the word out to the masses who may not have had the chance to see what we see or feel what we feel.  Increasingly, I’m being asked to talk about this very thing. Universities, colleges, bird clubs, conservation groups and even churches have called. Nature is everywhere and for everyone.  It’s not just about wilderness but about connecting folks who have been ignored in the traditional conservation movement to nature wherever they are—city or country. And so from the woods to Wall Street I went.  Well, not quite Wall Street but close enough I suppose.  A couple of days ago I headed to New York City for the first time in my life.  Yes, I do travel folks and I have even seen skyscrapers before but somehow, I’ve always flown around, or over the “Big Apple.” As others visit Harlem and Manhattan, I’ve opted for the Huachuca’s and Montana. But then when the call comes from someone I admire as a truly progressive leader of the conservation movement, you answer.  David Yarnold, the new president of the Audubon Society asked me to come to New York City to speak at a luncheon honoring former Secretary Carol Browner and the Toyota Corporation of North America for their commitment to conservation.  How could I say no to such an honor? And so I climbed down from my tree stand, traded in the camo for a coat and tie and headed north to the land of concrete canyons.

As the day approached for my first trip to Gotham, I got the standard admonitions about eye contact, speaking when spoken to and not looking up—all counter to what I’m used to.  What harm could there be in looking a New York warbler in the eye,  pishing to a silently skulking sparrow or watching a red tail hawk soar over Central Park?  Oh well, I guess I need to get out more.


My first impression was that I was not made for Manhattan. People were moving fast but the taxis were moving at something a couple of notches short of warp speed.  I think that maybe there needs to be one of those amusement park warning signs on every yellow cab!

 My mission in NYC was to talk about an initiative that the Audubon Society and Toyota Corporation dreamed up a few years ago. “Together Green,” is a nationwide, grassroots effort to do conservation in a new way.  By choosing forty Together Green Fellows each year for  five years and endowing them with $10,000.00 each and the freedom to implement innovative conservation projects in their local communities, Audubon and Toyota hope to  “Act Today and Shape Tomorrow”  by releasing the passion of people to protect nature through the 200 fellows who will come from the program. Toyota’s commitment of twenty million dollars—yes, that’s $20 MILLION—is the proof in the pudding: “putting your money where your mouth is” with a capital “M”! (See more about Together Green here: http://www.togethergreen.org/)

As one of the inaugural Together Green Fellows, I went to the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) near Shepherdstown, West Virginia in the autumn of 2008 to attend a week of training with the 39 other Fellows and take a crash course in putting our projects together for implementation back home.  The diversity of people there –racially, ethnically, gender-wise, professionally and philosophically was astounding. It was a true stew of souls from the four corners of the country and points in-between. I was instantly inspired by the diversity and single-minded commitment to a purpose that would make this thing a revolution in the conservation world where so many talk the talk, but seldom walk the walk when it comes to the “D” word. More on that later—a manifesto perhaps!

A brief aside, for those of you who have never visited the NCTC—DO IT! (http://nctc.fws.gov/#  ).  It is an example of government dollars well spent.  It is essentially a national shrine to the conservation of America’s natural resources.  In the serene setting of the Shenandoah Valley and the Potomac River, the words and works of conservation luminaries like Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Rachael Carson and Ding Darling are palpable as the bite of autumn’s chill in the October air.  I woke in the mornings to walk along the river spying bald eagles and migrating warblers before the work of the day began. 
Walking along the Potomac with Tom Hissong (c) and Dan Kunkle (r)
That work—intimate discussion groups, intense dialogue about sensitive issues of race and relating to the environment and how we move beyond convention to make conservation relevant to everyone everywhere, was exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve never enjoyed working so hard with laughing, crying, hugging, and yes, some arguing a part of each day.  But it was all necessary to break down barriers and clear the path for communication and collaboration. My project “The Color of the Land,” an effort to re-discover and re-connect southern African-American rural property owners to a sustainable land ethic, was one of the first forty ideas to be seeded on the American landscape as a Together Green effort.


 At the end of the 5 days there I felt as if I’d not met strangers, but simply been reconnected to kin I’d somehow lost touch with.

(You can meet them here:http://www.togethergreen.org/People/fellowsarchive.aspx?year=2008) .

Since then 120 more fellows have come into the fold.  The efforts of the 160 have been multiplied by millions of dollars, tens of thousands of hours worked, thousands of acres of habitat conserved and just as many new hearts and minds infected with the ideas of connecting people to nature in new ways.

2008 Inaugural Class of Together Green
And so I was in New York to talk about the Together Green experience at the annual Keesee Conservation Award Luncheon. What an honor!  With so many great projects and even greater people, that I was asked to speak for the Together Green Initiative, moved me deeply. After a somewhat sleepless night in the city thinking about the day to come, the hour had finally arrived for the luncheon. A short ride from my hotel and a doorman greeted me at the Metropolitan Club, one of the oldest in the city.  Now I’m used to lecture halls and have even talked in some rather spacious auditoriums but I was not prepared for the imposing scale of grandeur in this place.  Marble columns stood as tall as the loblolly pines I’m used to scaling in my climbing stand.  The floors reflected the light of the chandeliers and sconces like a marble lake reflecting the light of pendant stars. On the ceilings and walls, figures of mythical figures floated on a fresco firmament.  This was way beyond a “little” bird talk.  Memo to self…buy a new suit!
Dining Hall at the Metropolitan Club, Manhattan, NYC
I was introduced to Audubon staffers and New York notables. I was shuttled back and forth across the room to meet the Audubon President, Mr. David Yarnold and then the COO of Toyota North America, Mr. Yoshimi Inaba.  I reconnected with old friends like the Audubon director of the Together Green effort, Judy Braus.  During the luncheon, former Secretary of the EPA, Carol Browner, was awarded for her efforts to protect the environment.  I sat at a table with a Rockefeller talking about the importance of our national parks and the value of hunting in conservation. She promised to introduce me to one of T.R.s relatives who is writing a book on the subject.  Next to her, sat the Director of New York City Parks—the “King” of Central Park, who between bites of poached salmon talked about conservation in the metropolis. I was as they used to say, “In high cotton”.

After a video chronicling the phenomenal conservation career of Secretary Carol Browner and the presentation of her award, I was up.  Pushing away from my linen clothed table and the leftover lunch my slightly nervous stomach wouldn’t let me eat, I rose and strode eagerly to the stage, smiling as I weaved through the forest of dignitaries.  Another couple of steps and I would be there, delivering perhaps my most important message. Like I’ve done so many times before in the woods when I’ve taken the shortcut off the well-worn trail to hop nimbly over a log or across a ditch, I ignored the steps on the opposite side of the stage to reach the podium.  Mistake. BIG mistake. This time, the nimble woods hop turned into a clumsy stage flop.  I tripped. Perhaps it was the creased and cuffed dress slacks that restricted my normally graceful Levi-legged leaps or the slick soles of the loafers that betrayed me when the lugged soles of my boots would have saved me.  Before I knew it (and thankfully before I let fly with some perfectly inappropriate wood’s words) I caught the toe of my shoe on the edge of the stage and tripped—pitching forward awkwardly (but I think athletically so) to catch myself with my hands from a full frontal face plant.

And no---there are no pictures of the spill and I hope no YouTube videos to show!

Yes, in front of the who’s who of conservation, I fell.  Well, I didn’t fall down completely but I fell enough to have to crouch animal-like in front of lots of people and enough to elicit a room full of reserved groans. It all happened so quickly but it seemed as though I was posed there on all fours like a suited brown bear for an eternity. So it was not a good start. It was terrible in fact. I’m not sure any of the blood that rushed to my face could possibly show through my brown skin but there was nowhere to hide.  Even the most advanced cloak of camouflage that hides me from the wary eyes of whitetails couldn’t hide me. Rising to a human-like state of bi-pedalism, I pulled myself together and stepped as confidently as a person who’s just “bonked” (my wife’s words), to the microphone.  Surveying the audience and the solemn faces of all these important people there was a second of silence. Having just swallowed the largest dose of embarrassment and humility I said the first thing that came to mind. ”Wow, my first day in the city and I’ve already fallen for you all!” The somber silence became laughter and the solemnity turned to smiles. The ice thus broken and with nothing further to lose, I spoke from the only place still intact, my heart.  From that point, I think I did a decent job of delivering the “word” to the crowd.  Afterwards, many of the attendees found me to offer congratulations. Both Audubon and Toyota were highly complementary of the message and have insisted on having it for publication. Mr. Inaba and David Yarnold seemed very pleased. Already humbled by the opportunity to speak there, the little pratfall on the most important stage of my conservation career to this point was the whipped topping, cherry and rainbow sprinkles on the big ol’ humble pie.  More humbling still, was the reception of the words I’d spoken. 

“It has always taken individuals committed to the cause—Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Rachael Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr.—after all, environmental rights are civil rights--to put ideas into action. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to conserve anything. The effort to save is by definition value-laden and requires feeling something about it.”

“We know now that it will take more than us listing the species we see or talking to the same crowds about the same things to truly move forward. Aldo Leopold wisely advised us to consider every “cog and wheel” in his Land Ethic that also tells us to consider ourselves a part of nature, not separate and apart from it.  The human animal is just as important as any other.  We cannot strive to save the habitats of birds, without convincing young people of color that the clean water that the eagle requires for fishing  is the same water that they drink;  the same air  the warbler wings through is the same air they need to breathe; the same trees that the Baltimore Orioles hang their  nests in are the same trees that sustain their lives.  We cannot ignore poverty, ethnicity or politics to think that everyone will see the same beauty in the birds and wild places we all love.  We must act together in new ways to empower new people to conserve nature for the new generations yet to come…”

I had seven minutes to tell the story of something that has fundamentally changed my life--and maybe the way forward in connecting nature to a more diverse audience in the future.

“You see a person standing before you whose thinking has been fundamentally changed by the innovation of the Audubon Society and the Toyota Corporation. You see an individual whose blackness melds into green because of an idea to change the way we do conservation. In my evolution I have re-discovered my heart and the passion that has always burned hotly for the wild things and places that have shaped my life…As our passions were allowed to flourish in the context of conservation planning to “Act Today and Shape Tomorrow” all of us merged into one Together Green Super-Organism.  Our hearts—growing by 40 souls a year--beat as one in communities across this country.  Our hands are linked together to move soil, band birds, plant gardens and create habitats all over America.  Our eyes see a different world coming and stare intently into the future intent on making a difference.  Our ears listen to the millions of voices once ignored who deserve a voice in how conservation gets done. We are Together Green and as our lives have been changed by this wondrous force of vision and passion that Audubon and Toyota support, we have changed the way conservation happens.”

In the end, the fall was maybe one of the best things that could’ve happened to me. Any pretense I had of perfection spilled out with the tumble. Drew meet Drew—plain human and fallible soul. Several folks said it was the best speech they'd had in the nine or ten years of the award. I sensed a true appreciation for the words that I tried to deliver sincerely and from my heart.  It was after all, not about me (see you later ego!).  It was about all of those Together Green Fellows out there making a difference that I was honored to represent.  It was about Toyota, a titan of the automotive industry making a commitment of a significant sum of money, even in the worst of economic and public relations times, to something they believe in.  Toyota adheres strongly to the philosophy of Kaizen—constant improvement, that bodes well for the industry and the environment if more folks would take it to heart as they seem to do. It was about The Audubon Society, a giant born and rooted in the bird conservation movement whose courageous leadership sees that it has to be about more than the birds to move conservation into the future. It was about all of us moving forward to make nature and the environment a priority for everyone.

Hmmm…I wonder if they make a 4 wheel-drive Prius with a deer rack? Maybe there’s a new hybrid Tundra pickup in the research and design department?  Just sayin’…

Later and Peace,
Drew