Bernie's Birdship

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Meet the People

Yesterday when I went to water my garden, the hose wasn’t in its usual place. It wasn’t coiled in a haphazard pile in the middle of the garden, sitting in a mess of stinky rotten tree berries abuzz with clouds of drunken flies, its very end crimped and held folded down with a chunk of cement so that water wouldn’t be constantly flowing out. Nor was it to be found strewn at the base of the new Snowflake Cherry tree, which is where me and that Chinese lady gardener deposit it after we’re done watering so that the tree can get a drink (those cherries are always so thirsty!).

Instead, I followed the hose over the chain-link fence that separates Turtle Park (my community garden) from the backyard tent church property next door. The hose seemed to be going directly into the tent! I gripped the hose and started to pull it back over to the garden side, getting dirt all over my b-casual skirt and shirt and all over my arms and hands. This was working fine until I felt some resistance and then a sharp counter-tug. I stopped pulling and looked at the hose- someone was on the other end! I jerked the hose back. Another counter-tug!

Looking into the church tent, I noticed a man noticing me holding the hose. I made my usual hand gesture for “what the fuck?” where you hold your fingers all together like you’re gripping a hat brim or something and shake this configuration at someone. It can be accompanied by “que cosa?” I mostly use it for driving fiascos and clusterfucks, but its can pretty much be used in any situation and is universally understood as “what the Hell are you doing?”

Seeing this, the guy made a big production of dropping the hose and holding his hands up, like “OK garden girl, here’s your precious hose” which was totally unnecessary. My hand gesturing was so laconic and lazy that his response was unwarranted. When used in this Italian-mom-amazed-at-the-weirdness-of-kids kind of way, it can imply, “hey, what are you doing/can I help with whatever you're doing that you probably shouldn’t be doing?” Whatever. I pulled the hose in its entirety over the fence and began watering, keeping an eye on the dude across the fence, who I figured to be some sort of construction guy who was using the hose to fill some barrel weights that were holding the church tent up. He went about his business.

I checked my pumpkin, which was making yet another run for through the fence, and yanked it back (mumbling, “I didn’t think so” to it) and tried to maneuver the vine so that its next growth spurt would go into the garden instead of out of it. My tomato plants have begun sprouting tomatoes, and the peppers are also starting to produce. All my watering is beginning to pay off!

Mid-water, the construction guy walks up to me on the other side of the fence, and holds his filthy hands over. “Some water for wash my hands” he says. I go to hand him back the hose, but instead of taking it from me to wash his own hands, he kind of puts his hands into the water stream as the hose approaches him and starts rubbing his hands off, making no attempt to take the hose from me. So there I was, holding the hose for him to wash his hands. Now I really felt Italian-mom. “I am washing your hands,” I thought. “This is community gardening at its best.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Church and the Garden

Finally some much needed rain after weeks of drought here in Chicago. I imagine my tiny community garden plot is happy to receive a midnight watering.

The pumpkin vine keeps reaching through the chainlink fence that backs the garden, and into the yard of a local community church. Each time I yank the vine (gently) back to the garden side, I feel kind of bad, like I’m stunting my pumpkin’s yearning for the Gospel or something. But if the fruit grows on that side of the fence, I forfeit ownership. My pumpkin could be consigned into a life of no drinking or dancing (I suspect the church is Baptist), eliminating my plans to grow it up on beer and wine and take it to parties.

A few weeks ago I was up early and hungover and went over to water the garden (second only to watching ducks for a hangover cure). A guy in the church building was blasting some inspirational gospel music through his open window, and I could see him straightening up his tie and singing out “Halleluya” and “Amen!” along to the music as he got ready to deliver a sermon in the backyard tent.

Every time I’m watering and there’s a sermon going on, its always like 3 people on folding chairs and a bunch of ROBINS and HOUSE SPARROWS in the tent. Perhaps I should let my pumpkin run free- if it grows to be 200 pounds like its supposed to, it could make up 25 percent of an average church tent audience (maybe more).

Its going to be really heart-breaking when it gets eaten by a jillion mutant rat-tailed squirrels before it even makes it to its 30 pound adolescence….

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

No Exit on the Prairie

Lately, the birding in general has been a let down from the few intense weeks of the spring WARBLER migration. I must have racked up at least 10 – 15 life birds in May alone – mostly warblers, and got good long looks at several birds I’d only fleetingly seen in the past few years.

This past weekend, I decided to bite the bullet and go birding with my buddy A. A is highly active in the local birding community- perhaps one of the most active folks in the state, as far as citizen naturalists go, and his birding outings are long and brutal escapades of forced marches, punishing road trips and lots and lots of, “Oh, we’re just going to walk up to that stand of trees (1/2 mile away through stinging prairie grasses), go around the stand (1 mile slog), back over to that marsh (non visible) and than take the perimeter of that other stand (2 miles away) back to the road (through more stinging grasses and ticks) and then to the car (3 mile haul). We might make a few more stops before we get to the next stop- the outhouse at XYZ Slough (or marsh or whatever) had a few CASPIAN TERNS two years ago, and once I had a HARRIER, I think in 1988…”

I admit that my biggest mistake when I have a birding date with A is that although I know better, I usually get drunk the night before, which results in me getting up at 5:30 am, often on 5 hours or less of sleep, highly dehydrated, with a 8 hour ordeal of interminable slogging and praying for death ahead of me. Birdwatching hungover is a hideous experience. Lifting my ultra heavy binoculars to scan the branches for some diabolically small and hidden bird induces a kind of queasiness that just makes me want to puke. I usually spend most of our time together alternately zoning out, praying for death, and trying not to hurl (or shit my pants).

To calm myself, I look at the grasses blowing in the wind. This always works. I try to reconnect with my surroundings through concentrating on the hypnotic swaying of the various catkins and delightfully-tufted tips of the multitude of grasses, and I think of my favorite Carl Sandburg poem about love- “Waiting in rainleaf whispers, waiting in the dry stalks of noon… bending- never to be broken”. I think for Carl Sandburg, lots of things (at least his poems) always come back to his childhood nature emblem- the grasses of his Midwestern prairies. My childhood nature emblem is the ocean, specifically, the ocean retreating over the wet rocks of the beach (also hypnotic), but I haven’t had much chance to connect with it over the past few years. I’ve been trying to get a grasp on the prairie, and every time I go out into it, or the grasslands, I try to solidify this growing connection I am building with it. Part of my “midwesternization” I guess. I need to develop a new love of landscape….

Carl Sandburg is king of the prairie grasses. I think of him as I slash through the sharp grass, scattering blue moths ahead of me, and knocking tan husks off into the dry wind as I go.

Every once in a while, I snap to attention long enough to be schooled on the chattering of a HOUSE WREN, the cooing of a YELLOW BILLED CUCKO, or the buzz of a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW. We stop to stare at a HENSLOWs turning his head right and left on a low bush- showing his painted dots and markings like a tiny cheetah bird. We hear the robotic buzzing of the GRASSHOPPER SPARROW off to one side, but it never materializes out of the sedges.

A birds by ear. The second he gets out of the car he starts his narrative: “I hear two CARDINALS, a few GOLDFINCH, a HENSLOW’s SPARROW over there…CHIMNEY SWIFTS, FIELD SPARROWS…..ORIOLE…etc..”

Anyway, even though during some parts of our outing I felt like I was having a bad out of body experience, complete with nausea, sweating, and an overwhelming feeling of being trapped on a stuffy, never ending summer prairie (kind of like how I imagine the characters in No Exit might have felt in their stuffy Hell-parlor), I managed to salvage a few moments.

We had a CHAT, which I never had seen before- a giant yellow blob of atypical warbler, two perfect HENSLOWs SPARROWS perched on scrub tops, a YELLOW-BILLED CUCKO, heard an OVENBIRD calling from deep within a dark and distant stand of oaks, FIELD SPARROWS, a ton of MEADOWLARKS, INDIGO BUNTINGS, COMMON YELLOWTHROATS, YELLOW WARBLERS, RED TAILED HAWKS, TURKEY VULTURES, TREE SWALLOWS, GREAT BLUE HERONS (we had seven nests at one dead stick pond and 15 babies), GREAT EGRETS, WOOD DUCKS, BCNHs, BARN SWALLOWS, JAYS, one female BLUEBIRD, two GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHERS, two RED HEADED WOODPECKERS, DOWNIES, HAIRIES, FLICKERS, COWBIRDS, SONG SPARROWS, and the usual GRACKES, STARLINGS, ROBINS, etc.

Friday, June 03, 2005

non-warblering wine trip

Well, Brain didn’t eat anything too weird on our recent trip to Michigan’s wine country, where we drank loads of tiny sips of wine and totally missed the Michigan warblering walk, which was the original intent of this outing.

In fact, over the course of three days and I’m guessing more than 50 different wines, we saw not a single warbler. We did however follow a beautiful SCARLET TANAGER into the woods at the Dunes Park where we proceeded to become so infested with ticks that I just found one on my work sweater yesterday which must have hitched a ride home with us in the car. It was the highlight of my entire work week- I secretly prayed, while outwardly appearing to be highly concerned, that the tick would bite the crap out of me, induce a mild case of Lyme disease and force me to take medical leave. Mmmmm…delicious medical leave. I could totally deal with lying around in bed lightly hallucinating for about two months. I wound up solemnly flushing the tick down the toilet while a co-worker looked on. Afterward, it was brought to my attention that the tick could have been put to much better use around the office. Oh well.

Anyway, we also saw a KILLDEER and its two chicks at this one vineyard- I was surprised the two fuzzy chicks were so far from their mom- not all massed together like geese or whatever. We also had a gorgeous MEADOWLARK with an electric yellow front stamped with its glossy black chevron. Loads of GOLDFINCHES, a GREATER FLYCATCHER (life bird for both of us) and a very curious TUFTED TITMOUSE whose beady-eyed retinas we permanently scarred.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES were around the hotel too. Mostly this trip was about wine, dune jumping and non-warblering.

I planted my community garden plot the other day- mostly spindly tomato plants and some pepper plants, plus one Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkin seedling. This thing is supposed to produce a 200 pound pumpkin! Damn!

While I was planting my plot, which is right next to an alley, some crazy dude started driving his car back and forth in the alley and crashing into garbage cans and totaling his car for no apparent reason. Three girls stood at the head of the alley commenting on the insanity and warning any cars that were about to turn down the alley to “don’t fuckin’ go in there, yo!” By the time this guy’s road rage subsided, he had flattened a perfectly good refrigerator box and had pieces of scrap lumber jammed up in his grill, and some skinny adolescents were running around screaming, clearly enjoying the wreckage produced. That’s when I noticed this ancient Chinese lady gardener, whose garden plot is like a bunch of perfect rows of succulent lettuces and other fluffs, had crept up next to me to take in the scene. “Is cray-see,” she said. Actually, this kind of neighborhood summer mayhem doesn’t bother me any more- its just another thing to watch.

Monday, May 23, 2005


This weekend, Brain and I went down to Jackson Park and Wooded Island . Also, Brain ate two SILKWORM PUPAE, but more on that later.


After birding, we went to the Chinese food supermarket. Even though it smells like old kimchee and very slowly rotting fish in there, when you are standing in one of the aisles, closely examining a flattened plastic bag of 92895967544589589 tiny little dried fish, each with a bright blue dot for an eye, the smells kind of fall away and you just wish you were on something. Quail eggs, giant colorful tubs of soy bean paste, 25 pound sacks of rice, a million different kinds of gyoza, blue crabs in a bowl of soy sauce, dried fish on a stick, giant bags of some kind of red powder, sacks of mung beans and tapioca pearls (bubble tea!), stacks of crinkly cellophane bags of seaweed, some kind of deer antler extract jam, fish sausages, jello-like yam flour cakes, vacu-sealed bags of baby octopus, lotus root slices, liverwort in juice, frozen squid caps (which make excellent calamari for cheap!), seaweed bar, and cans of SILKWORM PUPAE in special sauce. We couldn’t resist.

I think Brian’s best bet for a get rich quick scheme is getting on Fear Factor. If you recall from an earlier post, he ate a LIVE WAXWORM a few weeks ago. These dead silkworm pupae were no big woop for him. He just whipped out some chopsticks and after coolly regarding the floating brown beetle-looking things, he popped one in his mouth and chewed. Then he ate another one. It was amazing! I took a picture. He said the sauce wasn’t thick enough. We also got some Korean rice wine which looked really refreshing, but tasted and smelled like rotten vegetables. I think Brian liked it.

Anyway, we also went kayaking on Sunday, but it wasn’t too birdy- we had a possible YELLOW CROWNED NIGHT HERON and a few other warblers. We also saw two soft-shelled turtles, which always remind me of chocolate chip pancakes. Next weekend, we’re going to Michigan for warblering.

I wonder what Brian will eat next? E-mail your suggestions to . If he accepts your challenge, I’ll send you an e-mail photo of him eating whatever it is. Think hard because I bet he’s already tried what you’re thinking of suggesting.

Monday, May 09, 2005


Brian pretty much covered our excellent birding weekend running around Saturday for the Spring Bird Count, and then Sunday we just went out to LaBagh Woods and it was stuffed with warblers. I had three or four life birds in there, plus I saw a giant SPINY ALIGATOR TURTLE- it looked like a gnarly half-deflated black basketball with claws and a tail. Brain says the only way to hold one where it can’t bite your fingers off is by the tail. Apparently, he slew one as a youngster with one of his bamboo swords or with one thousand bamboo skewers or something. He really digs bamboo.

This morning, I had PALM, YELLOW RUMP, BLACK & WHITE and the resident FLICKER calling and drumming on the river behind my house. Also, yesterday I had a dead INDIGO BUNTING at the base of my building- I think he must have flown into a window or something. I should have bagged him for the freezer so that Brain could get a look right then, but instead, I just picked him up by the tail and moved him out of the way.

Today, when I changed my mind and decided it would be worth it for Brain to see the bird, I went down with my plastic bag, but the bird was coated in a moving brown cloak of tiny ants, which seemed to be mainly crawling in and out of the bird’s eye holes. Instead of trusting the freezer to kill the ants, I thought about how my home has become kind of a moth breeding grounds. These moths live in suspended animation inside the tattered cushions of my 100+ year old Morris chair and come out to multiply in the spring, taking up residence in my hall closet, blankets, towels, everywhere. I looked at the ants crawling all over the bunting and decided to just leave it there.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

have you seen any good birds lately?

One of the best parts about birding, and hanging out with other birders, like at informational bird lectures and bird award presentations and whatnot, is the popular social query, “have you seen any good birds lately?” It’s a sort of greeting - a secret handshake if you will - sort of like knowing somebody has kids and asking them how the kids are, or knowing that a person is a writer and asking them if they’ve gotten anything published recently. You know a birder’s always looking for birds, so you ask: “have you seen any good birds lately?” And as a conversation starter among birders it NEVER FAILS. Seeing birds and not seeing birds, it’s all important to talk about. After all, high-yield birding requires a constant stream of information about weather conditions, sightings, and research. But the thing I like best about the question is that it pulls the person questioned back to the experience where he or she saw his or her last good bird. Reliving and remembering, and appreciating fully, bird-seeing experiences - the fleeting, wilderness moments - seems to be really what birding is all about sometimes. A few nights ago on a weekday evening Detta asked me if I had seen any good birds lately over the phone. Both of us had been working and neither of us had been out birding at all that day. The only birds I had seen were two grackles, so I told her about the grackles; how I caught a momentary glimpse of them out the window of a brown line El as it turned the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride curves south of Sedgwick, and how the two grackles on that rainy day in the leaf-bare upper branches of a tree next to the track were silhouetted against a grey sky in a noble, defiant sort of pose. Normally, I find grackles a little disturbing. And normally I would have just forgotten about seeing those two ever-so-common in the spring, summer, and fall grackles. But now after recounting the experience to Detta I think I’ll remember those grackles, and the way the sky looked grey that rainy day, and the way it felt going home after an exhausting day of work in my rumpled suit, and what the planet earth was like at that particular moment – I think I’ll remember that moment for a long time now.

This last weekend, however, there was no need to dwell on the ever-common Grackles. This last weekend Detta and I had close to fifty species both Saturday and on Sunday. Saturday was the Annual Spring Bird Census. On bikes and kayaks (no fossil fuels) Detta and I covered North Pond, Olive Park, and the North Canal. Detta’s got our raw data from our census participation; she’ll be the one filling out the forms involved, but highlights from the bird census (for me) were a male and female EASTERN TOWHEE in the crabapple blossoms outside the gate at Olive Park, 3 ROSE BREASTED GROSBEAKs on the river a few bridges North of where the Evanston Canal meets the Chicago River, and what I think was a SAVANNHA SPARROW hopping along the sidewalk in front of Detta in the field by the sewage treatment / crop circle looking fountains inside Olive Park (to be fair, Detta is wary of this identification).

On Sunday, first Detta and I hit Labagh (Lablah) woods. I wouldn’t be surprised if this weekend turns out to be the peak of the spring migration. After a winter subsisting on ducks when we could get them and seagull watching, looking from bird to bird at Montrose harbor for something a bit different from the usual ring-bill and herring gulls, LaBlah was a mystical fairy paradise, filled with colorful, bug-eating wonderment in warbler form. We had: PALM WARBLERS, BLACKBURIAN WARBLERS, BAY BREASTED WARBLERS, RUBY CROWNED KINGLETS, MAGNOLIA WARBLERS, YELLOW THROAT WARBLER, BLACK & WHITE WARBLER, BLUE GRAY GNAT CATCHER, NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH, HERMIT THRUSH, BROWNHEADED COWBIRD, YELLOW WARBLER, NASHVILLE WARBLER, BLUE WING WARBLER, ORANGE CROWNED WARBLER, YELLOW RUMP WARBLER, GOLDFINCH, a RED BELLIED WOODPECKER we didn’t see but we identified by its churs, a WHITE BREASTED NUTHATCH, and a PEEWEE. After a delicious tofu-based lunch, we hit the Magic Hedge at Montrose. There, we had (and I’m omitting the more common birds you’d expect to see there this time of year) a HOUSE WREN, OVENBIRD, BALTIMORE ORIOLE (like half a dozen hanging out in the top of a catalpa tree in the hedge where all the fresh woodchips are – this is probably the best tree in the Hedge for orioles and warblers if you can see them through the leaves) making their shy, tender quiet gurgling noises, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, CATBIRD, WOOD THRUSH, BOBOLINK, WHITE CROWNED SPARROWS (all weekend, this sparrow’s almost even outnumbered the house sparrows around), FEMALE REDWINGED BLACKBIRDS, SONG SPARROW, BARN SWALLOW, ROUGH WINGED SWALLOW, CASPIAN TERNS, COMMON TERNS, NORTHER (dorito) FLICKER. Earlier that day around Detta’s house we saw a HOUSE FINCH and a BLACK CRESTED NIGHT HERON.