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

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


“Tis the season! It’s Christmas Bird Count time and as many of us do our duty to count every last single feathered thing in our prescribed circles, certain things have become evident to me after  twenty-four years in the tallying trenches  and now seventeen years as a compiler.  First, let me congratulate every one of you for your dedication and diligence to the birds. Each and every one of you is a foot soldier in the citizen science army. Without you, we’d know little about the species that grace an otherwise drab and somber winter landscape.  But then, after all these years, there are certain-truisms and phenomena that seem to keep repeating themselves. I thought in the spirit of giving and the season, I would share a few. So here goes!

      1.   Does anyone ever  REALLY count all the birds? I mean, after the 110, 678th Rock Pigeon—how much more counting can you do?  And besides, they don’t really count anyway. Do they?

      2.   What’s up with that person  in your sector who  always turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.  You know, that guy who sees a half dozen varied thrushes skulking where everyone else saw six American robins; or the woman who somehow makes the cardinal into a vermillion flycatcher—all before lunch. Even the subtle hints to consult a field guide and consider the common thing first  don’t seem to work as they insist on the goldfinches being evening grosbeaks because it’s an irruptive year.  Yeah, and your count is in South Florida.

    3.   Ummm yeah--foot miles. So who’s wearing the pedometer in the group? If I’m  brush busting for sparrows  around  huge ag fields- leaving shreds of flesh in bramble  tangles and stumbling in and out of muddy furrow canyons,   then rest assured that by the end of the day my foot miles will have swollen to at least 3 times the actual  distance I’ve walked.

 4.    The bird count doldrums. Yes, that horrifically and excruciatingly boring time—typically between noon and three or so, when you're fighting that Mexican lunch special and all  the birds decide to siesta somewhere other than where you’re counting. As tumbleweeds roll through the streets and  paint dries somewhere at a rate faster than you ‘re piling up species, even that  fifth can of Red Bull  Xtra Octane  doesn’t do the trick. My suggestion? Try toothpicks as eyelid supports. A bit painful but…

        5.    Sooo…it’s a BIRD COUNT—not a BIG DAY. So you’ve got those folks who stake out some rare bird for a week, surrounding the location in super secrecy and swearing everyone else to keep the whereabouts hush-hush until  the compilation when they can spring it on everyone—BAM! A SCOOP! Meanwhile, they report no crows  or gulls from their sector—which contains  a landfill full of rotting fish. They may have watched  “The Big Year” one too many times.

6.    Post Note to #5 --Ever notice how the last hour of the count is like an episode of “The Amazing Race” as you rush frenetically  to find the species you should have on your list?  Somehow Carolina Wrens---- birds you saw everywhere just the day before-- have been extirpated from your area. Not one, not a single solitary loud-mouthed wren can be found.  Oh  the shame of it all!  The  humiliation of  missing the “can’t miss bird” cannot be drowned by even the fanciest scoop—or that  third grande cerveza.

  7.  What the duck?!? Waterfowl have decided not to come south of like—North Dakota—for the past few years.  Some call it short-stopping as the hordes of web-footed, winged things find open water  far to the north and leave us down south with nary a mallard for the tally. Even the feral Canada geese make themselves rare.  If this doesn’t convince you that global warming is real then you should invest heavily in coastal development futures.

8.   Caution. Don’t sit in front of that dilapidated hovel of a house (the one with the 1978 AMC Pacer on cement blocks and the confederate flag painted on the door) with binoculars waiting for the  lark sparrow to show up in the  weedy field that’s really the home’s front yard. As folks who look like casting call rejects from the movie “Deliverance” pile out of the house eyeing you with suspicion, three teeth (and maybe armed to protect their castle), drive away—quickly. The sound of banjos you hear is real and the lark sparrow wasn’t confirmed anyway. By the way, if you continue to insist on counting birds at Honey Boo Boo’s place, you might want to learn to squeal like a pig. Just sayin’.

9.  The "Super-spisher". Yep.  That guy. You know, the one who sprays a fountain of spit into the brush  to pull out the bird so that everyone can I.D. it. Not only do his absurdly loud salivary solicitations assure that every skulking sparrow will flee to the opposite side of the woodlot, but those that do remain hidden are likely to be drowned in the subsequent shower of saliva.

     10.    Recipe for Post Christmas Count Recovery-

a.       Ditch the winter weather,  Carhartts, heavy coats and  Keen boots  for a hot shower, bathrobe,  jammies and  thick socks.

b.      Secure copious amounts of beer and/ or other libation (tequila and/or single malt scotch dulls the pain of dawn to dusk ticking and herding the cats that a group of counters at a compilation can become).


c.       Commandeer the most comfortable chair possible in front of a wide screen HD television with opposing groups of 11 heavily-padded , hyper-muscularized, uniformed  men running around on a green field and  intent on smashing one another to take possession of  a brown spheroid  --otherwise known as a football. This activity can salve the long hours spent counting. Keep the remote nearby to switch to your favorite reality show (Honey Boo Boo maybe?)  or perhaps swoon into dreams of your own as you   repeat  10a.

d.      Fall deeply into a dreamless sleep (or stupor) as a result of combining 10a, 10b and 10c.  The next count is coming and data entry can’t be far behind!

Have Fun Birding Y’all and Happy Holidays!


Monday, December 17, 2012

A Plea for Conversation and Common Sense

A Plea for Conversation and Common Sense
It's a cold, foggy December morning here in the Up Country of South Carolina and my mind should be squarely fixed on a deer stand somewhere in the midst of  the rut. Somewhere out there the deer are moving--and I don't care. For today and maybe a few more I'll not be so intent on that pursuit. Instead my mind has filled with images of killing and carnage that won't leave anytime soon. The recent tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, where six and seven year old babies were terrorized and executed along with their Sandy Hook Elementary School administrator and school teacher caretakers has me thinking beyond any simple pleasure at the moment. The time has come for serious conversation and some common sense. 

I am a hunter and a gun owner. In fact I teach hunting ethic and conservation to students at Clemson University. In that role I try to teach --or at least have them open their minds--to the complexities of what hunting--and killing is. In that teaching we talk about the lives of non-human beings. It is an act of serious consequence to take any life and I want them to think seriously about what it is that they do. Whether it be in the flash of an instant when one must decide whether or not to pull the trigger on a fast flock of wheeling teal or to loose a broadhead on a wary whitetail buck, the intent is to end the life of something on the other end of that act--to kill. As a hunter I mostly clean my heart to the purpose and make peace with the act of securing meat in that manner.  I shoulder, aim and sometimes pull the trigger knowing the consequences of that action. But then I never, ever want to lose the respect for life--any life--such that I don't think about it.  I owe that respect to every fellow living being. But now, once again,  we are faced with the most heinous act; that of killing innocent fellow humans. Even more so,the sin of murdering our most precious ones--our children and those who we entrust with their care, has enraptured me--all of us --in a flurry of "what's" "why's"  and "how's".

So first my disclaimer. I am not an NRA supporter--never have been and never will be. I choose not to affiliate with an organization that has hijacked the hunting heritage to forward the claim that as a hunter I have a need--some misplaced and perverted constitutional right-- to own something that spews bullets at rates that make mass murder as easy as toggling a button on a video game (...and that is yet another discussion that needs to be held in my honest opinion) for hunting is absurd. Hiring actors or anyone else to proclaim some pious right to pry something from my "... cold, dead hands" while hundreds of innocent people die because of political stubbornness and ideological intransigence is beyond absurd. It is sinful. The concept of sin  requires no belief in any deity. Evil exists and increasingly it seems to stand comfortably and menacingly behind some automatic weapon with a high capacity magazine.  It's time for serious conversation and some common sense.

I treasure the opportunity to track the autumn and winter woods in pursuit of whitetail deer and do the same in the spring chasing wild turkey. It is a tradition that I treasure and will defend with vigor. But this is beyond any argument about hunting. It is about humanity and our humane treatment of one another. As a responsible gun owner I understand that all of my firearms are lethal weapons. However, none of them have been designed with the sole intent of killing multitudes of people with a single trigger pull. Bushmasters and other automatic weapons are not hunting tools. They are implements of destruction manufactured for the sole purpose of killing humans. We've seen now too often that blunt fact. And now we are pressed to the point of pondering again.Why? What will it take for it to end? That the demands for these conversations keep arising is testament to how far we really have to go as a nation to move forward into some sort of sensible light where our children and those that we entrust with their care are not being murdered at the feet of ignorance, cruelty and greed for political leverage. I don't think any of the children killed a few days ago cared about red or blue states. Their concerns were likely of the coming holidays; fanciful days with family and innocence. "What's going to be under the tree in a few days when I wake up on Christmas morning"--was the question I'm sure many of them were focused on early Friday morning--and then that all ended violently. We let that be taken away from them, forever.

Fear now reigns in places that all of us--regardless of ideology-- can agree are sacred--our schools. That children on this December morning are fearful of attending classes; that their teachers and administrators are likewise having to think more about murder and mayhem than about instruction and education is shameful. My own daughter is a second grade teacher and today I am sure her mind is probably wandering-maybe having to explain something so inexplicable to her kids whose minds should be on Christmas parties and cupcakes in the final week of class. As a father I am thinking of her safety. My heart skips beats even thinking of her being in that situation.  It is time for serious conversation and some common sense.

The time for implementing assault weapons bans (yes I said the  "B" word; ban) and high capacity magazine sales is long past due. Close the gun show loophole. Period. That will be a start. No, it will not prevent evil people from doing what they are intent to do but it will begin an earnest effort for us as a nation to do better. Unless we do we will share the sins of the perpetrators who exact their evil on even our purest souls.

So too do we need to sit around the national table as citizens concerned about our future and have serious conversations about a video gaming culture where wanton killing is rewarded. How much insensitivity is ramped up by sitting for hours in front of an HD screen mowing people down for some high score? We must also seriously consider the care and monitoring of those with mental health issues that might push them towards committing such horrific acts. A bit more caring and attention to those we see circling some drain of despair might save a life-or twenty. Yes, I know how complex the issues are. Yes, I know that there will be those who argue for their Second Amendment rights to not be trampled upon. They will argue that they must be armed against the coming revolution and the hordes of criminals waiting to assault them. Funny, looking at the stats the fear of the coming pandemonium ramped up on election day in 2008 and again this past November. With the fear the sales of automatic weapons have also gone through the roof. I wonder why?   I know that the arguments will be complex, loud and passionate. I also know that today, 26 people are no longer with us because we failed. Yes, we've failed to do better. Shame on us--all of us.

As a hunter and gun owner, I want to talk. As a parent and citizen, I need to talk. The time has come for common sense and serious conversation about the future--our children--our nation.

We must be willing to do this for the greater good- common sense and conversation is where it starts. Look at a child today. Maybe it will be your own or perhaps someone you don't even know--waiting on a school bus, playing on a playground or maybe shopping with his or her parent(s) for the holiday season in anticipation of all the good that is to come. Then think about that suddenly being taken away and you will have all the reason you need to sit and think and talk. Yes, the time is long past for serious conversation and common sense. It is time to act. Now.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012


An evening deer hunt is practice in appreciating diminishing possibilities.

It is time well spent learning to live with the failure that is more likely than not fated to you. All the while  you’re resigning yourself to the slim odds, you’re also convincing yourself that at any moment  in the span of a few fading moments of human sightedness that  many of us call “the golden hour”, the probability of success  will suddenly spike  as night gnaws at the edge of the waning  light.

Today I sat in the deer pasture —a little valley that sits at the edge of the modest mountains some call the Chauga Ridges.  A hogback called Buzzard’s Roost fills the horizon’s frame and big pines along the spine of the mount help me understand the porcine moniker.   There are big black bear wandering around in the coves and oak-hickory forests up there. Although I sit in a man-managed landscape they keep my mind on the wild side.  Others in the hunt club have seen a gargantuan bruin wandering about and I wonder if I’ll ever have the thrill of seeing one during my quests. Today though, I am all deer. The pasture is filled with persistent persimmon drupes and honey locust pods- sweet fruits allegedly so irresistible to any whitetail within sniffing distance that they throw all caution to the wind and beat cloven-hooved paths to eat  the fallen manna in broad daylight. My time-to-hunt-o-meter  told me that the place needed my attention today and so off I went. 

 Beyond the banquet that was offered the opportunity seemed perfect. The remains of yesterday’s cold front chilled the air and the cloud quilt hung low-- pulled to the southeast by a northwest wind to cover the scant patches of blue struggling to peek through. The oaks and other hardwoods hanging around the little valley are mostly bereft of leaves.  The only green beside the little patches of scraggly fescue forage are stands of aromatic eastern red cedar and a few corkscrew-needled Virginia pines. 

 Like so many places in the Piedmont where the landscape’s character is betrayed by clay, the abundant acidic-soil loving broomsedge  is  everywhere. It waved like tawny buffalo grass on a high plains prairie in the light breeze. Green, gold and cold-It was the kind of day with venison written all over it. Or so I thought.

The trick to deer hunting—any hunting--is thinking like the thing you pursue but not thinking too much.  Too much thinking spoils instinct. It is like calculating a kiss. Better it should just happen. Some would call me an experienced hunter but I know better. I am an evolving  "quester" learning to appreciate the failure that dominates the hunt and to embrace the slim odds of  “success” that keep drawing me back for more. 

The spot where  I chose to sit -- a little copse of  the prickly cedars and an accompanying seasonally appropriate and scraggly “Charlie Brown” Christmas  tree—sits  on a western facing slope with views to the north and south where I thought the wary whitetails would filter through. I could see the persimmon tree with fruit still hanging a couple of hundred yards to my right and to my left a little remnant of forest next to a piece of mangled cut-over laden with frostweed, head-high fall-withered pokeweed and a jungle of brambles—the perfect spot for a buck to bed until hunger or hormones stirred him to move.

And so I sat; nestled into the cedar closet confident that I was hidden at least from deer view and hopefully from scent-view too.  The wait begun and with no whitetails in immediate site, I tuned in to the birds that always provide company. White-breasted nuthatches “yank-yanked”  in the  line of oaks on the ridge behind me while a few  brown-headed cousins  did their best tin toy imitations in the pines.  A hairy woodpecker hammered  and “peeked”  in a little snag not far away. Somewhere in the bramble tangle a few towhees  hurled insults at one another and a crow curiously flip-flapped in some sort of corvid self-play as it made its way across the little valley.  Still no deer though-not a grunt, bleat or hoof beat.  

 So in the interim of birds and potential bucks, the bovine owner s of the pasture rumbled clumsily through the pasture where the deer should have been. I counted the hours by cows. There were brindle-coated ones with up-swept horns and roan-coated Herefords nattily trimmed in white.  There was a skinny black cow that seemed to sense that something was amiss on the wind and bunches of others with coats of every color combination. The bulls and cows had apparently been at their business as a few new calves gamboled through kicking up their little hooves in some sort of ruminant jubilation.  They were cute and added a bit of whimsy to the day. But then any amusement with the domestic animals faded.  To add insult to the deer-less-ness, the cows were snuffling up the deer food. Like so many giant hogs they were eating the mystical, magical deer bait. The possibilities of seeing   something beyond the beeves diminished with the gluttony.

 And so as the golden hour approached, and the cavalcade of cattle came to a close, a million song sparrows started “chimping” at the edge of the bramble tangle jungle where I knew the buck—big, burly and wide of rack-- would emerge to defy the odds of the diminishing day. I was ready on that expectant edge; eyes narrowed and focused to see gray against gray-the muscular form and outline of tines against blackening sky-but still no deer. 

 A few white-throated sparrows, turned on by their little brown kindred “spinked” like so many little ball-peen hammers hitting little anvils.  and an ambitious one even spilled the plight of “poor Sam Peabody”.  The towhees would  not be outdone and laid their  claim to vespers answering  the roll call for roost. There was no amber-purple blush of sunset as there seemed to be no sun to do the setting. Instead the cloud quilt thickened and any chance I would have to make an ethical shot on any antlered monster that was surely waiting just on the dark side of the cut-over was gone.


I often imagine what’s just on the other side—of some wild place; a thick mountain forest; a brooding cypress swamp; an impenetrable thicket. Maybe it’ll be the biggest buck in the wood or perhaps some reclusive, skulking warbler I’ve tried a lifetime to see.  Maybe there is some fantastical creature so stunning that will take my breath away. Most often, the fantasy doesn’t meet the reality. But then I keep wishing—wanting. And I keep coming back just to roll the dice again on a day when maybe it will all come together and it’s even better than I dreamed it could be. I rose from the cedar blind and made my way back to other possibilities beyond the deer pasture.  I’ll come back to maybe "fail" again another day.