Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Year: 2009 (page 1 of 12)

The Last Post of 2009

As per the dictates of tradition, I post the same old picture I’ve posted every New Year’s Eve since I started blogging.

2009, like many years, was a year.

Have a good 2010. See you on the other side.

Solstice Birding at Hornsby Bend

Trail at Hornsby Bend

River Trail leading to Pond 3 at Hornsby Bend

I started winter (and Christmas vacation) with a morning at Hornsby Bend. I hadn’t been since July when I came to check on the swallows and long-legged waders that own the place in summer. In winter it’s all about ducks, and Monday was a perfect day for birding so I headed down.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

As expected, I mostly saw American Coots, Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks, though I did see a few Buffleheads on Pond 1 East. I parked on the road between Pond 1 East and Pond 1 West and using the car as a blind, I was able to watch a flock of Least Sandpipers poke around the edges of 1 West while a few Killdeer hung around the periphery like avian shepherds, or perhaps overlords, watching their smaller kin.

Around the road to Pond 2, I saw more of the above-mentioned ducks, but as the road entered the woods, the Ruby-crowned Kinglets appeared, flitting across the road and sometimes stopping to have a look at me as I drove by. I stopped too.

On a winter branch,
a kinglet inclines his head,
shows his ruby crown.

I parked at the blind at Pond 2 where I watching the coots and ducks paddle around, forming great circular clusters (clusterducks?) in the pond, probably to conserve heat since unlike me, they were without coffee.

I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk nearby, so I headed down the river trail to see if I could find him. I never saw him, and when I heard him again he was farther off down the Colorado, but the trees were singing with birds, shaking off the cold and starting up for the day. In addition to the kinglets, cardinals, Song Sparrows, chickadees and wrens were everywhere. Though I didn’t actually see a Carolina Wren, there was one singing loud nearby and he seemed to be following me along the trail.

From the upper island view blind, I saw a mixed flock of Gadwalls and American Wigeons floating on the slow-moving river. I hung out at the upper island view for a while, digging the beautiful crisp morning and waiting to see what presented itself.

That’s one of the great things about birding, that waiting. Even though I tend to list (and upload my lists to ebird for whatever value they may have to the ornithologists at the Cornell Lab of O) I don’t tend to go hunting with the mindset of I’ve-got-to-find-this-bird. Once in a while, but not often. It’s best to see what birds come along and just enjoy what nature serves up on any given day.

Soon, the ducks flew upriver and out of sight, but watching the river drift by is good too so I did that for a while before I started to hear my coffee calling from the car. I went back and drove along Pond 2 to the greenhouse and parked there to walk out to Pond 3.

As I approached the river trail a small flock of something darted out of the sky and into the treetops. I glassed (I don’t know if that word has been used by anyone other than Cormac McCarthy, but it’s a great verb for this kind of thing) the treetops and saw my first life bird of the day: Cedar Waxwing. They say they’re common here in winter, but I’ve been looking for three years now and Monday was the first time I’d seen one.

They were high in the tree, almost beyond the useful range of my telephoto lens, but for what it’s worth here’s a picture.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

I watched the waxings for a while, admiring these lovely little birds that seemed content just to ride the slow waving branches at the tops of the trees. Soon enough, they departed and so did I, continuing along the trail to Pond 3 on which there were more Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks.

I did see a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers in a tree. They seemed to be hollering at each other. Like the waxwings, they were almost beyond the reach of my camera gear, but for what it’s worth, here’s a picture.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Close to lunchtime, I headed back to the car and drove out along Pond 1 West, where I saw perhaps thousands more ducks poking around on the mud flats. Among the shovelers, I saw a few glimpses of something new to me. I parked and searched through the horde of ducks until I found life bird number 2 for the day: Green-winged Teal.

It never ceases to amaze me how many and what variety of birds can be seen at Hornsby Bend right here in the Austin city limits. Every time I’ve been, I’ve seen something I’ve never seen before. Amazing considering I never go there looking for anything.

Here’s the list:

  1. Gadwall
  2. American Wigeon
  3. Northern Shoveler
  4. Green-winged Teal
  5. Bufflehead
  6. Ruddy Duck
  7. Great Blue Heron
  8. Great Egret
  9. Red-shouldered Hawk
  10. American Coot
  11. Killdeer
  12. Least Sandpiper
  13. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  14. Eastern Phoebe
  15. American Crow
  16. Carolina Chickadee
  17. Tufted/Black-crested Titmouse
  18. Carolina Wren
  19. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  20. Northern Mockingbird
  21. European Starling
  22. Cedar Waxwing
  23. Orange-crowned Warbler
  24. Song Sparrow
  25. Northern Cardinal
  26. Red-winged Blackbird
  27. meadowlark sp.
  28. House Finch

Update: This post was included at I and the Bird #116 at Listening Earth Blog. Check out the rest of the birds there.

Project FeederWatch – Month 1

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

I learned so much about my backyard and its avian visitors last year that I decided to participate in Project FeederWatch again. Plus, it’s good to be a part of this citizen science project sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Unlike last year, I won’t be posting my weekly counts here. Instead, I’ll do updates monthly or so.

I started counting for this feeder watch season on the weekend of November 14th. Most of the usual suspects have checked in, though I haven’t seen any Northern Cardinals or Mourning Doves yet.

American Goldfinch hasn’t stopped by either, though they didn’t show until January last time. The Lesser Goldfinches have grown scarce since I moved the feeder. I guess they don’t approve of the new location, so I’ll probably move it back.

The Chipping Sparrows returned for the winter, right on schedule in early November, and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Orange-crowned warbler, the other winter residents, are enjoying the suet feeders.

An accipiter, probably Sharp-shinned Hawk, swooped through the yard too, but not on a count day. I haven’t seen a hawk in the yard since March so I’m assuming it’s one of the migratory sharpies.

Here’s the tally after one month with highest counts in parentheses:

  1. White-winged Dove (23)
  2. Blue Jay (3)
  3. Carolina Chickadee (1)
  4. Black-crested Titmouse (2)
  5. Carolina Wren (2)
  6. Bewick’s Wren (1)
  7. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
  8. Northern Mockingbird (1)
  9. Orange-crowned Warbler (1)
  10. Chipping Sparrow (6)
  11. Lesser Goldfinch (4)
  12. House Sparrow (12)
Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

James Dream of the Olympus Mons

Olympus Mons (courtesy NASA via wikipedia)

Olympus Mons (courtesy NASA via wikipedia)

Yesterday, I wrote about the music I’ve been listening to while I work on my science fiction novel and music—a song anyway—is the inspiration for the setting, at least for now. It’s set on Mars at a research station near Olympus Mons, the massive shield volcano at the edge of the Tharsis region.

According to Wikipedia, Olympus Mons stands over 16 miles above the Martian surface and is 342 miles wide, about the size of the state of Missouri.

I don’t know if I’ll keep that site in the final draft, but the choice was inspired by the Pixies tune “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons,” one of my all-time favorite Pixies songs. Okay, all Pixies songs are pretty much my all-time favorite Pixies songs, but really, I mean a song about a bird dreaming of flying around on another planet?

Did they write the song just for me?

Have a listen.

Writing and Music

My uncle, who is both a writer and a retired writing teacher (and who has read several of my works-in-progress over the years) has commented on occasion that the voice in my work is consistent in such a way that it seems everything is done in one sitting.

I had never thought about it, but I think part of what makes that possible is ritual. During the summer when I have all day everyday it’s not so important; I just sit and write. Doing NaNoWriMo last month forced me to think about how to get into the zone so that the isolated hour here and two hours there could be most productive.

Music is one of the best writing rituals I’ve found. Whenever I work on a novel, I tend to pick one CD (or one artist now that itunes makes it easy to shuffle all of an artist’s work) for that project. In the past I’ve written to And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out by Yo La Tengo, the hundred or so hours of Dead I’ve got, and Enigma’s MCMXC. For this project, I turned to ( ) by Sigur Rós.

When finding music for writing, I look for work that’s interesting musically, but that can also fade into the background. I like lots of instrumentals and open spaces and maybe even some drone.

Last month, I found ( ) to be perfect for an eerie science fiction piece set at a research base on Mars. Perhaps on some level Sigur Rós appealed because they’re from Iceland, a nation whose landscapes are closer to what exists on Mars than almost anywhere else on Earth. The music is also otherworldly, and the lyrics are not sung in English so they don’t become a distraction.

By listening to ( ) in my car on my way home from work, I found that I would already be in my writing zone by the time I got home. I would brew a cup of tea (another ritual) and sit down to write. While writing at my computer, I used itunes and so could go beyond ( ) to include Takk… and “Sevefn-g-englar,” the epic track from Vanilla Sky that turned me on to Sigur Rós in the first place.

I have an easier time getting started when I’ve pre-focused my mind on the drive home. When I sit down the words come easier, and I’m in the frame of mind for a particular story because I think my subconscious is already tuned to that story’s frequency.

I was finishing some revisions on another novel at the beginning of the month and I found I could easily switch focus between stories by changing the music from Sigur Rós to the Grateful Dead.

What (if anything) do you listen to when you write?

Here’s a video of Sigur Rós performing “Sevefn-g-englar.” You have to love a guy who uses a bow to play his guitar. Enjoy.

Birding the Neighborhood Trail

Reflections 1

They said it would snow today. The blizzard of aught-nine was on its way. There were some flurries around lunchtime, enough to enjoy the feeling of being snowed upon, but soon the temperature dropped and the sun came out to create the kind of brilliant and crisp day we so rarely see here. A great day for hiking while wearing a coat, another novelty of sorts.

I followed the north-running stream through the neighborhood greenbelt, stopping on the little footbridge to try to ID a bird call I wasn’t familiar with. Soon, I saw the bird, which turned out to be a Belted Kingfisher. It’s only the second time I’ve seen one and the first time on this little stretch of trail.

I stood on the bridge, kind of losing track of time and letting it flow along with the water below me, content to be outside and cold and remembering those fierce days we had last summer on which cold and water seemed such impossibilies.

Reflections 2

After coming back to reality, I took a few pictures of the play of colors on the water and tried to figure out where that kingfisher had got to. I knew which tree he was in, but from where I stood, he was too well hidden, but I was treated to the surprise of a Great Egret hanging out in a nearby tree. These guys are pretty common around here, but they’re usually a little farther downstream at the pond rather than around the bridge.

Great Egret in a Tree

I spent a little more time looking around for the kingfisher since they’re relatively new birds for me and I’ve never gotten a picture of one, but it was not to be. I continued along the trail to the pond where I counted 51 Gadwalls dabbling and quacking around in circles. I’m sure there were more as I could see the silhouettes of a number of ducks in the glare on the pond, but I couldn’t tell what they were. Among the Gadwalls, I saw three American Wigeons. It’s nice to see the ducks are filtering back for the winter.

Speaking of coming back for the winter, the other day I saw an accipiter (most likely a Sharp-shinned Hawk) like the one that lurked around my yard last winter make a pass over the bird feeder. I wonder if it’s the same one.

In addition to the ducks, I saw Yellow-rumped Warblers and, I think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but he flew off before I could be sure.

It wasn’t long before the cold seeped through my coat and my hat and heading home seemed like a good idea, though I wanted to stick around and look for that Red-shouldered Hawk who’s been refusing to let me get a good picture of him all year. Maybe next time.

Reflections 3

Pomegranate Surface Features

If I could study these spheres long enough
to see canals as Schiaparelli saw,
or invent for them tragic civilizations
like those dying while Lowell watched,

these pomegranates might reveal
the wildest tricks of the light.

I’d stake my rep on pomegranate people
living out tiny desperate lives,
their doomed world sure to be destroyed
for the jeweled seeds inside.

This is for Read Write Poem’s Image Prompt (#103), a picture of two pomegranates. Inspired as much, I think by my recent reading of Mars: The Lure of the Red Planet by William Sheehan and Stephen James O’Meara, a fascinating history of our understanding of Mars.

Where there were pomegranates, I saw planets. I suppose we’re all a bit like Schiaparelli and Lowell in that we often see what we want to see.

For those who may not know, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) was the Italian astronomer who first reported seeing “canali” on Mars. It was a trick of the light and the human eye as well as, possibly, his colorblindness, but the name “canali,” which in Italian means “channel” was mistranslated to “canal” in English. American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916) took canal to mean artifical channel and reasoned that Mars was populated by a dying civilization building canals across the surface to irrigate the deserts with what little water remained on their doomed planet.

Read what others saw in those two pomegranates here.

Update: Don’t miss Angie Werren’s “planet pomegranate” at woman, ask the question. She too saw Mars in those fruits and wrote an amazing poem.

I’m Back to Explain My (NaNoWriMo) Experience

I “won” NaNoWriMo, which means that I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November. To be precise, I wrote 50,364. The idea is to write a novel, but that 50K I wrote is more like two-thirds of a novel. A decent start, at any rate.

I figure I’ll finish the first draft in the next two weeks. It feels like it wants to be about 80,000 words or so, but we’ll see. Once that’s done I’ll let it cool for a few months before tackling revisions. Maybe they should call it National Novel Starting Month (NaNoStMo?) since all those first drafts are unlikely to be presentable.

The experience of participating in NaNoWriMo was an enlightening one. For years, I have convinced myself that I can only write novels during summer vacation because there just isn’t time during the school year. I found out I was wrong about that. I lied to myself! I can work on novels anytime, and I discovered some ways to bring focus to the small chunks of time in which I could write.

I used NaNoWriMo to try some new things too. I wrote in the first person, which I’ve only done in short stories, and I’m doing science fiction, which I’ve always wanted to try but hadn’t until now. The go-go-go pace of writing for this challenge doesn’t  leave much room for self-doubt so it’s a great time to try new things and experiment a little bit.

It’s been fun, and I like the characters and the story. I’m surprised by some of what has happened, but that’s part of what makes writing such a thrill.

Starting a New Novel

I’m doing NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write the first draft of a novel during the month of November. The draft should be 50,000 words.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before mainly because I’ve always assumed I can’t write a novel in a month during the school year.  I’ve written first drafts in a month, but only during the summer.

One of my teacher friends mentioned she was doing it and asked if anyone wanted to join her. At first I said no. 50K words in a month? While teaching? Impossible.

Then, I started to wonder if I could do it. I mean, I’ve written three first drafts already so this isn’t new. How does one begin a new writing project? Why, at the beginning, of course.

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1994). In her chapter “Shitty First Drafts,” she uses the metaphor of driving at night to describe first drafts. We can only see as far down the road as the headlights reveal, but eventually we’ll come to a destination.

What’s that destination?

Last a week a character came to mind. A setting. That’s where I start a draft. Just write about the character and the place. Things will present themselves. This is the beautiful serendipity of fiction.

Sure, I will likely cut out most of the opening fourth of the book when I get to revisions, but that opening part is where characters are met and discoveries are made.

I started yesterday and wrote about 3,500 words. I like the narrator, and I like the premise. Toward the end of writing, another character walked up and whispered something in my protagonist’s ear. I was as surprised as him.

Doors begin to open and the world grows. I can’t wait to see what happens today.

That’s the excitement of first drafts. You just write what seems right at the time, taking the words as they come. Don’t worry about plot holes and inconsistencies. So what if your protagonist is 37 on one page and 42 on another. Fix it in post, as they say in the film biz.

That’s where I do research too. Since this is a sci-fi project, I’ll have a lot to do to create the verisimilitude I want, but for now, I intend to tell the story as it unfolds in front of me.

As with football, it’s all about forward progress and at the end of November, I’ll have a first draft to revise and craft into something good. Something beyond a “shitty first draft.”

Working title is A Fire to Be Lighted.

Wish me luck.

Halloween Hell-Hound Blogging

Joey - Halloween 09

Phoebe - Halloween 09

2009 Jack-O-Lantern

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