The Wildness of Simplicity

It is easy to think of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a celebration of complete wildness—after all, it was Thoreau who penned the now-famous saying “in wildness is the preservation of the world”. On first glance, or after only a cursory reading, Walden can seem filled with similar sentiments. It cannot be ignored that the book catalogues season upon season spent away from regular human company. Upon closer inspection, however Walden can be read a different way; a way that contains a far more complex message.

The scenes of nature and wildness throughout Walden are tempered by references to a more human and conventionally unnatural presence. In Jedediah Purdy’s 2013 blog piece for the Huffington Post, he reflects on this observation, saying: “The book’s key passages do not just acknowledge the damage and breaking of the landscape: they seem to begin from them, to depend essentially on them.” The ways that Thoreau does this are myriad. In almost every chapter that includes scenes of ecological observation or pastoralism, there is an accompanying reminder of human interference—or, to use Purdy’s word, profanation. Some of these references are more powerful, more visceral, than others. One of the most striking comes from the chapter “Spring”. Thoreau writes:

“At the approach of spring the red-squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No you don’t—chickaree— chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.” (230-231)

The cursory read of this passage might seem quite wild—Thoreau is among the animals, after all. His house is among them and he depicts himself as wholly powerless to impose his will upon them. How many of us, born in cities and suburbs, or even in farm country, have even found ourselves in the presence of red squirrels, let alone witnessed their breeding season antics? In today’s world, this rust-colored, thick-furred relative of our familiar gray squirrel is often as much a hermit as Thoreau thought of himself. They stay away in the deep pine woods of New England and only venture south along the wild spine of the Appalachians, where humans are much fewer and further-between.

But then one reads more closely. Thoreau records the cheerful, if odd, music of squirrel courtship and then, if the narrative can be trusted, attempts to quiet the sound. He stamped to disturb them, to see if he could convince them to quiet themselves, or at least to continue their amorous activities elsewhere. Furthermore, the only reason that Thoreau is a witness to the scene is that he has placed himself among the squirrels. They are under his house, one has to assume, since there had been no house there for years. The newcomer is Thoreau, not the squirrels, and it is his presence that causes the tension and drama that is portrayed. When taken in context with the rest of Walden, Thoreau’s presence among the squirrels is, in this reading, the harbinger of the coming suburban sprawl. Thoreau is but an early intruder into the squirrel’s world, simply the member of human society that has struck out furthest from the village first, and will soon be followed by many more.

It is not surprising that this reading is not popular among some. As I write, I can hear generations of self-declared environmentalists and conservationists before me crying foul—how can the great the environmental and ecological saint that is Henry David Thoreau be forerunner to the tremendously destructive building practices of today? And I have a response to those who say this, or rather Thoreau does. In the same breath that he uses to describe his efforts to quiet the squirrels living below him, he says, almost wondrously, that the neighbors were beyond his ability to silence. He goes so far as to describe how they seemed to curse him with their “strain of invective” (pg 231), and pronounce their irreverent tone towards him as being irresistible to hear. The significance of this would be that even as humanity creeped into the woods at Walden Pond, nature was pushing back—thus the wilderness that Thoreau praises is not truly wild because of its purity. Instead, it is wild because it manages to retain a touch of wildness despite the impending violations at the hands of the human world. And in Thoreau’s world, a creature as small and seemingly inconsequential as the button-eyed red squirrel is the focal point of the natural world’s rebellion against the looming threat of human oppression. A Thoreauvian metaphor if ever there was one.

Perhaps only slightly less famous than Thoreau’s proclamation on the crucial nature of wilderness is Thoreau’s proclamation on simplicity. In Walden he declares, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail” (69). This declaration has probably been taken at face value, just as the statement on the necessity of pure wilderness has been. The reader who is unprepared for the commitment and deliberation needed to read can read that statement and assume that they have read all they need to know about Thoreau and simplicity. However, I would argue that there is as much room for conflict in this proclamation as there is in any other Thoreau wrote.

And yet, Thoreau betrays his truer purpose. He does not truly believe in simplicity as we would be expecting to understand it. He may not even truly believe that simplicity is simple. In “Conclusion”, he writes the following of the person who is willing to engage in an experiment as he did with his stay at Walden Pond:

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” (241)

He presents simplicity as being the gold standard and a pure thing in one line, and in the very next explains how the act of complicating one’s life is what allows for simplification. The ideas he plays with here—the “expansion” of former knowledge, a newer more “liberal” set of ideals, a “higher order”—these are not the words to describe that which is classically thought of as simple. These words describe deep and complicated thought and reflect what the reader knows to have been long and tumultuous meditation during his time at Walden Pond. Furthermore, the ideas that solitude is not truly to be alone and that poverty is not truly impoverishment are not ideas that are easy for anyone to wrap their heads around. Yet Thoreau claims that these experiences are the signs of having reached a true simplicity in life.

And here lie the ironies of Thoreau; complexity is the key to living simply and understanding plainly. Similarly, wilderness is not truly about being pure and untouched by humans, but about how the wilds of the world push and pull against the encroachment of the human world. The fact that Thoreau presents these two facts in terms that are almost paradoxical is, I think, the saving grace of Walden. In our world, it is easy to be lost in the complexity of the world, and to view our place in that world as hopelessly muddled. It is easier still to decry the loss of wilderness as the greatest crime of our era, and in some way these things are both true. But then Thoreau steps in to remind us that, in order to preserve wildness, the must be something to preserve it against. Without complexities beyond measure to wade through, we can’t reach a simpler understanding of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Gulls are Fun & Species Profile: Ring-billed Gull

In much of North America–indeed, in much of the world, winter is a time for looking at large numbers of common species. In my part of the world, in central Maryland, thousands upon thousands of Canada Geese augment our year-round populations, and a birder could easily spend hours sifting through them, marveling at the astounding numbers. Another group that explodes here in winter are the gulls. Ring-billed Gulls, especially, flood urban and rural areas alike, loafing on open water, parking lots, and agricultural fields. They are probably the default gull, perhaps even the default water bird, in most of Maryland throughout the year, a status which is solidified in winter.

One might think that such a cosmopolitan species would, therefore be among the most familiar and recognizable birds in the region. To some extent, that’s true. However, there are few more variable species of bird than those of the gull genus Larus, to which the Ring-billed Gull belongs. The Ring-billed is a perfect example of this variation, and a great species to use to show how, despite being among the most frustrating groups to learn about, gulls are also among the most fascinating and enjoyable.

So what does a Ring-billed Gull (RBGU from here out) actually look like? The answer to that question can be as simple or complicated as you want to go. The standard-issue, adult, RBGU in winter has a pale gray back and wings, white body and head, and yellow legs, eyes, and bill. The head is streaked or spotted lightly with dusky gray-brown, the wingtips are jet black with large white spots on them, and the bill has a characteristic black ring about 2/3 of the way out to the tip. It’s a mid-sized bird, but on the mid-to-small end for a gull, especially a Larus gull. It has long-ish legs, long wings, and a well proportioned head that is fairly rounded with a slim, average-length bill. Overall, an adult RBGU looks relatively slender, neat, and clean.

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This is about as close to average as a RBGU gets. This adult bird has neat streaking that is limited to face and crown, a pale gray back, yellow legs, a crisply patterned bill, and a pale yellowish iris

In flight, the effect is very similar. The relatively small head, slender body, and long wings of the RBGU gives it a long-limbed look. The bird lacks the barrel chest of other, larger gulls, and the small head combined with long, slim wings makes it look far lighter-weight. The black wingtips retain the line of white spots, with two larger white spots, known as “mirrors” being revealed on the spread wing.

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The spread wings reveal limited black at the tip of the wings, a line of white spots along the back edge of the wing, and two white mirrors on the two, outermost primary feathers (wingtip feathers)

All on its own, that doesn’t sound too bad. When compared with other gulls, there are similarities, but plenty of distinctions in shape and size and coloration to help distinguish RGBUs from other species. The difficulties start to come in when you consider all the things that can be different from our “average” gull outlined above. Lets start with some of the more consistent changes we can see.

Age is probably the greatest variable in gull identification. Oftentimes, when scanning a large group of gulls, of any species, you will noticed that many of them do not have the smooth, gray-and-white pattern that is expected. Many of them have underparts that are strongly spotted or barred, and the backs may be primarily brown. These birds are most often not, as is sometimes assumed, a different species but different ages of the predominating species. RBGU have three fairly distinct age groups, and many variations of those groups. One group, the adults, have largely been discussed already. The other, most distinct group, is that which includes birds which less than a year old, birds known as first-cycle birds. Shape and size-wise, they are largely identical to adults, but their plumage is worlds away. The white body feathers are barred and smudged with brown, sometimes quite liberally. They have a neat black band across the end of the tail, their dark wingtips lack the white spots and mirrors of adults, and their wings and backs are marked with brown-and-white bars and cross-bars. The closer they get to their first birthday, generally, the more gray they begin to show on the back and wings. The “bare parts” colors are also different than on adults. The eyes are dark blackish-brown, as is the bill. Both gradually turn pale, with the bill often having a pinkish base (as in the photo below) by the time the bird is a few month old. The legs are pink.

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This is a fairly normal looking first-cycle bird. This bird has rather extensive and heavy brown markings across its entire body, but it is starting to show some of the cleaner gray adult feathers on its back. The wing feathers are very neat and sharply patterned, a product of their newness. Dark eyes and pink legs are characteristic of this age as well. The black on the bill is now largely limited to the tip, as the base is mostly pinkish.

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When looking at a first-cycle bird with a spread wing, the black on the wingtips is much more extensive than on an adult, and the primaries lack the white spots and mirrors, as well. The brown barring and mottling is apparent on both the upperside of the wing, and the underside.

 

The other age group is that which encompasses second-cycle birds–birds that are a year old. Their plumage is a mixture of adult and immature feathers. The back is often more completely gray than first-cycle birds, and the underparts and head often whiter. The wing tends to have more gray feathers, and wingtips may have small white spots. However, there are often still isolated dark bars or spots on the flanks and chest, and a few sets of barred, brown-and-white wing feathers usually remain. The bare parts colors are somewhat variable. The bill and legs may begin to turn yellow at this age, but they often have a fleshy, peachy, coloration. The tends to have neat black tip. Eyes are generally still dark, though this is somewhat variable. This is probably the most variable age, and some birds that are late in their first-cycle can look similar.

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This is a more classic-looking second-cycle bird. The back is mostly gray, but there are some retained, brownish wing-coverts. They are relatively pale, the color bleached out of them due to their old age, but they are still evident. The wingtips are plain black, and the eye is still dark. The bird has fairly heavy markings on the chest and head, but it is whiter than the first-cycle birds. The bill is a striking, peachy color and the black bill tip is crisp. The eye remains dark.

 

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This bird is a good example of the ambiguities that sometimes arise in ageing and identifying gulls. The eye is dark, so its not an adult. The bill is rather dark, with little pink, and certainly none of the fleshy peach color of the prior bird. However, the gray on the back is extensive, and its is extensively, but faintly marked below. My guess is that this is an early second-cycle bird. I don’t think those brown wing coverts and trials would be so frayed and bleached if this bird were under a year old.

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Two adult RBGU… Or not? The back bird has a remarkably dark iris if it’s an adult, and the bill doesn’t look as bright yellow as the front bird. So is it a second-cycle? If it is, the gray on the back is remarkably extensive, and there is precious-little barring on the breast. Sometime gulls just don’t do what their supposed to, one of the things that can make them frustrating to learn. I would consider this bird an adult, but a new adult, one that has probably just shed the last of its second-cycle plumage.

 

The next set of variation I’ll look at is head shape. The standard RBGU is often described as pigeon-headed. The crown is rounded, the forehead is moderately steep, and the bills is rather slim but not overly long. A number of birds show that shape, but a reasonable number do not. The photo below is a great example:

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Notice the difference in head shape between the front bird and the back one. The front bird looks like its head is more angular and flatter-crowned than the back bird, and the bill looks longer. It is a head shape that is vaguely reminiscent of the Herring Gull, a much larger Larus species. Recently, I sent this picture to a more experience gull-watcher for his thoughts. He mused that male and female gulls actually differ subtly in shape. The front bird with the flat crown, more sloping forehead, and thus longer-looking bill has a head shape he says is associated, anecdotally, with male RBGU. The RBGU we are familiar with in field guides, and the bird in the back of this photo, is the round-headed, neat-billed female bird.

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Another RBGU with a rather angular head. The more one looks at large numbers of these birds, the more apparent it is that small variations are the norm, and not the exception

Head pattern is another thing that is remarkably variable. The normal head patterning for older (late second-cycle into adult) birds is even, neat streaking across the head, often with slight concentrations of streaks around the eyes and crown. But often times, for no apparent reason, this streaking is nonexistent, almost as if the bird had molted into summer plumage already, but other times, it is so dark and extensive it gives off a hooded pattern. This is just something that needs to borne in mind. There isn’t really an explanation or trick to it, it just is.

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This bird has extensive dark streaking that extends from the crown to the nape of the neck, and down across the birds breast. In addition to its somewhat extreme extent, it is also smudgier than “normal”. The paler throat imparts a hooded appearance. All the same, it is still a RBGU, and adult bird too. See if you can tell why.

 

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This bird is probably less heavily marked than average, but is close to the middle. The streaking is well-defined and occurs in three areas–around the eyes, the nape of the neck, and the crown. This is an often-seen pattern on RBGUs of any age, but especially adults, like this bird.

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If you just saw this photo with no other info, you would probably think it had been taken in June. But winter birds are sometimes this pale on the head. Only the faintest lines of streaks on the forehead, and behind the eye are visible.

 

So the moral of the story? Gulls are variable, weird, and they don’t follow the rules we prescribe for them a lot of the time. However, they are also attractive and ubiquitous members of the birdlife in most regions so it pays to get used to looking at them, and figuring their quirks out. RBGUs are just one example of the variability that gulls show, but this post could have been written about most any species of gull. Gulls are fun, and the more you learn about them, the easier to understand they become.

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Enjoy!

 

Lifebirds and Swamp Sparrows

One of things which I think fascinates people about birding and birds is that discovery is constant. Estimates for the number of extant bird species in the world vary, but most authorities agree that just over 10,500 species is probably a safe ballpark number. In the American Birding Association (ABA) area alone–defined as all of the North American continent North of Mexico and excluding Hawai’i–987 have been recorded and Maryland boasts records of just about half of these. Amazingly, all three of these figures continue to grow almost constantly. By the end of next year, the ABA area list will likely stand over 990.

There is always the chance of finding a record that is outstanding on some level–county, state, country etc. There is always the chance that that little park down by the grocery store that you walk through everyday will today hold something special. Maybe a new bird for the county, maybe even one that’s a lifebird; a bird which you have never seen before.

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My most recent lifebird: the Harlequin Duck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This thrill, anticipation even, of discovery, is what keeps us coming back to birds again and again. Every time I leave my dorm to go birding, I’m wondering if this time might be the time when those Tundra Swans that everyone else in the county seems to be seeing will fly over, or if maybe when I get up to the ploughed corn and soy fields a Snowy Owl, the ghostly monarch of winter will be staring back at me with unfathomable golden eyes.

But that’s only part of the fun for me. The amazing thing about birding is that, while these are the discoveries that get all the attention, the ones that often provide the greatest satisfaction are on a much smaller scale. Take the Swamp Sparrow: it’s a common bird, being one of our expected “winter birds”. In spring most of them head to the muskegs and fens of central Canada and New England, but some deign to breed in the bogs of western Maryland, or the open grassy salt meadows of the Eastern Shore, and so they can be found in some part of Maryland the whole year. They’re attractive birds, but dressed in grays and chestnut-browns, they’re not what anyone would probably call a real knockout. Yet I haven’t met a birder who doesn’t pause to appreciate them, or whose face doesn’t twitch with a bit of joy when one tosses back its head and casts its melodic trill into the still morning air.

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Swamp Sparrows are tastefully dressed, but not nearly as showy, or even as crisply-handsome as some of their relatives

One of birding’s–or even, of nature’s–true splendors is that a little Swamp Sparrow which I encounter daily from September till May can inspire me to stop and stare as much as a flashy, sexy, lifebird like a Harlequin Duck. I think its because we never really know these creatures that we share our world with. We can see them as often as we want, but when the Swamp Sparrow picks up and flys away, when the dragonfly darts into the shadows of a great cypress tree, when dolphins duck beneath the waves again, we can’t follow. All we can do is watch and wait and hope that we might catch another glimpse, that we might be given another chance to share, and discover, some of their  world.