The Scarlet Kingfisher: Discovery of a new species
Robert Henry Benson
Genre: Fiction ("Birder murder mystery"?)
When Mr. Benson asked me to review his new novel I did let him know that I had never reviewed a fictional book before. In fact, I remember reading only two fictional books in the past 25 years--both science fiction. Now, wait; the protagonist in "The Scarlet Kingfisher" is a scientist discovering a new species, so this is science fiction, right? No? Well, I'll give it a try anyway. But be forewarned, I called David Sibley's 2014 update to his groundbreaking book on birds "unreadable." But that wasn't the material; it was the microscopic font size.
This fast-paced story is very engaging, and becomes more so as the story reaches its climax. The story begins with the protagonist--a biologist, Dr. Beach O'Neill--locked out of his field research area on a private ranch in southern Texas. Apparently, some ranch hand reported an improbable undescribed bird in southern Texas. Dr. O'Neill sneaks on to the property to reach his study area, but comes upon a dead body! Now he's the prime suspect in the murder! He has to evade the bad guys and the sheriff, repair his relationship with his girlfriend, save his career, and somehow clear his name! And all the while search for the improbable titular bird.
Written by a birder, Mr. Benson takes us on a realistic drive through the south Texas countryside. We see the geography, botany, and birds through his accurate descriptions of what is really there. Likewise, we get a realistic glimpse into academia, in this case Texas A&M University. There is also some history of Texas towns and people, but how much is true and how much is fiction? Nevertheless, it made it personally realistic to me, because I would pay the same exact attention to the plants and animals.
The fast-pace of the book necessitated shallow character development of many of the characters. I found the antagonists rather stereotyped and lacking in character development. The falconer/bird trapper was an unkempt individual with no redeeming qualities. The "muscle" killed without remorse. The bad guy was a shadowy egomaniac. On the other hand, O'Niell's girlfriend botanist and fellow professor at the university was almost "too good." But by the end of the story, as events were reaching a nail-biting and page-turning confrontation, none of that mattered. Good story-telling carried the day.
Though there are sixty-one chapters in the book, there are only 211 pages. Thus, the chapters average less than 3.5 pages each. Personally, I might have increased the descriptive elements of the story even further (landscape, birds and animals, character development). For instance, in places Texas or desert-specific vegetation is named, but not described. I am reminded of the "Ox-Bow Incident" where more than half the book is devoted to a 15 or 20 minute period building the suspense for the quick actions at the end of the book. The painfully long time to get to the action actually increased the tension of dread of what was inexorably coming. The "Scarlet Kingfisher," on the other hand, kept building tension by moving quickly, then just before climax, switching the story line to another character's perspective of the same time period.
There were some brief uncomfortably graphic descriptions in the killing of a couple birds and one man. The bad guys did some swearing. The sex scene... That was a sex scene? Bullfrog? Really?
An engrossing, fast-paced, bird-themed murder mystery adventure. I have never read anything like it before.
Ps. Marlene loved it!
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Sunday, September 28, 2014
|Sunrise: Pelagic birding trip aboard Grande out of San Diego, California. September 21, 2014. Greg Gillson.|
I enjoy watching birds at sea. I enjoy being at sea.
On September 21 I was privileged to be one of the guides on a pelagic trip from San Diego, sponsored by the Buena Vista Audubon Society. The trip was aboard the 88 foot Grande. Though not as large as the 95 foot Searcher, also out of San Diego, it is much larger than the 45-55 foot charter fishing boats available for these purposes off Oregon. Even with 50 birders aboard it was not crowded.
|Passing Point Loma and entering the Pacific Ocean.|
The double-overnight trip in 2008 was what some might call "roughing it." Biggest problem for me was there was only one head (marine toilet) each for men and for women. I had to get up before the crack of dawn to make sure, well... if you are older you know. If not, then you don't want to. There were no showers available for those three days. Sleeping was in bunks--stacked 4 high. There is a left and right aisle with bunks on left, center, and right of the boat. The center bunks shared a common wall between their neighbor on the opposite aisle. The "wall" was just a canvas divider. The 45 passengers slept in their clothes. It was not a luxury liner. On the other hand, I've gone overnight in a small fishing boat sitting on the floor with my back against the oven and my feet down the stairwell, almost, but not quite, falling asleep.
Not everything was primitive, though, this boat has a galley and chef to provide meals. As far as I know, no other pelagic trips in North America have this available (except Searcher, also from San Diego, California). I had purchased and brought along a Subway sandwich to eat during the day, but took advantage of the galley to have a breakfast burrito.
|A view from the stern.|
Passengers were loaded and an orientation speech by the trip leader began. The captain discussed boat safety as we departed.
Most West Coast pelagic trips are damp and cool to cold. However, on this September date it was nearly 70 degrees as dawn approached. I left my hooded coat in the car and only brought my light weight rain jacket/wind breaker. But I never put it on. It was a shirt-sleeve trip from start to finish. Even if cloudy, one can be sunburned. I always tell everyone to put on sun block, but didn't take my own advice. Even though I work outside all day, the left half of my face is now peeling.
|The Coronado Islands on the horizon are in Mexico, 15 miles from the San Diego harbor.|
It's a bit confusing until you get used to it, but the mouth of San Diego Bay faces due south, not west. So our trip went south, straight out the bay heading along shore in the direction of the Coronado Islands off Tijuana, Mexico. Brown Boobies nest there, and we saw 3 along this section of our trip. Black-vented Shearwaters are regular here, and there were many Red-necked Phalaropes flying about. When we neared the Mexican border we turned around and headed northwest to Nine Mile Bank, an underwater mountain range about (yes) 9 miles offshore.
|In Oregon these backpacks would be drenched with wave splash! But not here.|
Birds were nearly absent between Nine Mile Bank and Thirty Mile Bank. We did spot a couple Pink-footed Shearwaters and barely discernible Black Storm-Petrels flitted about at about a quarter mile distant, but didn't approach the boat more closely. A Blue Whale spouted several times and finally sounded. I didn't get a photo--I was too entranced by the sight of this huge animal!
For "county listers," those concerned with keeping lists of birds in each individual county, we left San Diego County and entered into Los Angeles County. Now Orange County is between the two on the mainland, but ocean birding follows the "closest point of land" rule. We had been traveling from Point Loma, San Diego County (the nearest point of land), toward San Clemente Island, which was officially owned by Los Angeles County. When we reached half way, over Thirty Mile Bank (yes again, about 30 miles from San Diego Bay), we crossed into the new county, skipping over Orange County, which owns none of the southern California islands.
|Returning to San Diego Bay in late afternoon.|
Was this a disappointing trip for passengers? I'm not sure. In Oregon we always have the big Black-footed Albatrosses (always a crowd-pleaser) and at least 3-5 species of shearwaters, as well as 3-5 species of alcids: murrelets, auklets, puffins. But these birds are not common in southern California waters. Instead, storm-petrels are the draw. But we only had very distant Black Storm-Petrels, no big rafts, nor anything unexpectedly rare.
Personally, I added 10 species of new birds for the year in San Diego County: Black Oystercatcher, Brown Booby, Pomarine Jaeger, Cassin's Auklet, Pink-footed Shearwater, Black Storm-Petrel, Common Tern, Sabine's Gull, Common Murre, and Craveri's Murrelet. In fact, Brown Booby was a first for me in all of California. Additionally, the Sabine's Gull and Common Murre were new birds for me in San Diego County.
I've got another trip scheduled for next weekend. So, if it doesn't get weathered-out by rough seas, I'll have lots of seabird photos to share over the next few weeks. I'm not a guide this time, and had to pay my way aboard. But I probably won't do anything less than I've done the last 20 years--point out, teach, and explain about pelagic birds, fishes, and marine mammals; sharing my excitement with whoever is nearby.
|Returning to the marina at sunset.|
Saturday, September 27, 2014
|Chipping Sparrow. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California. September 14, 2014. Greg Gillson.|
The photo above is of the first bird that I thought might be Brewer's Sparrow. It was in bright sun and this photo has been adjusted to bring down the over-exposed breast and face from the bright sun. In the field, the dark whisker mark stood out to me and the lores (feathers between eye and bill) appeared pale. These two field marks should indicate Brewer's Sparrow. However, looking again I do see that the lores are somewhat dark and the whisker mark is diffuse. Tricky!
Another possibility is Clay-colored Sparrow. But that bird has well-defined crown streaking, especially a broad white central crown stripe that this bird lacks. Chipping Sparrows in breeding plumage have a solid chestnut cap, but here you can see the crown is slightly chestnut with black streaking. Brewer's Sparrow would not show any chestnut color on the crown.
Young sparrows, just out of the nest, are heavily streaked below, as this bird shown above. In the field I didn't know exactly what species this was, and concentrated on getting several photos that I could examine later. There were adult Savannah Sparrows and Song Sparrow there and I thought this might be a young Savannah Sparrow. The wing bars and a rather plain facial pattern (with just a line through the eye and not much of a lateral throat stripe) point to this being a juvenile Chipping Sparrow.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
|Wilson's Phalarope. San Luis Rey River mouth, Oceanside, California. September 7, 2014. Greg Gillson.|
Most shorebirds have unwebbed feet. Some shorebirds, however, have partial webs between their toes. The phalaropes are unique among shorebirds in being lobate--having flaps or lobes that aid in swimming, much as the feet of grebes and coot.
As with many shorebirds, phalaropes have a bright breeding plumage, a gray winter plumage, and the young have a long-held juvenile plumage they keep through the fall into winter.
For a photo I took of a bright female in breeding plumage in Oregon in 2010, see my Pacific NW Birder blog post: "Memorial Day weekend at Malheur: Part 9."
Friday, September 19, 2014
|Black-bellied Plover. San Luis Rey River mouth, Oceanside, California. September 7, 2014. Greg Gillson.|
Of course, with wildlife photography, you can't control many of these things in the field. You just keep taking photos while the bird will let you--paying attention to potentially distracting background elements and sun angle--and just hope one of the pictures turns out.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
A Child's Garden of Verses
(First published 1885)
The 1957 version Illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa
(above) was my first book!
Bed in Summer
by Robert Louis Stevenson
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people's feet
Still going past me in the street.
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?
Besides sharing my first book and first memorized poem from that book, I want to share the reason the poem was written. Stevenson was Scottish and that far north there is a major difference in daylight hours, summer to winter. Thus, getting up in the dark in winter, and going to bed when it was still light in summer. There is much less of a difference in daylight hours, summer to winter, in San Diego, compared to Scotland, or even what I experienced in Oregon. In fact, that's one of the major reasons I left Oregon almost exactly a year ago.
I am totally solar-powered. When it is sunny, I am full of energy and good cheer. When it is dark or gloomy, so am I. And cold and tired. In Oregon in June I would wake with the sun before 5 am, and keep going until nearly 10 pm. November-February? I had a hard time staying awake. The marked difference in the number of daylight hours between summer and winter was hard on me. Every fall and winter I would experience Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms to some degree, sometimes rather severe. So, besides looking for a place that was warmer and drier and sunnier than Oregon in winter, I wanted to move south where there was less seasonal change in daylight hours... and less seasonal changes in my mood.
Near the equator there are about 12 hours of direct sunlight all year. But right now, in late September (and again in late March, the autumn and spring equinoxes), the earth is tilted perpendicular to the sun. Thus, the day (sun visible above the horizon) and night are both about 12 hours right now everywhere on the planet.
As I discussed, in late June in NW Oregon it was light (civil twilight) from 4:45 in the morning to 9:40 at night. Almost 17 hours! In San Diego the longest day of summer, dawn to dusk, runs from about 5:15 in the morning to only 8:30 in the evening. 15 hours and 15 minutes.
And winter? In late December in Oregon there was at least some light visible on the horizon from 7:15 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon. That's 9 hours and 45 minutes. Of course, it was usually overcast in western Oregon in winter, thus often much darker. In San Diego, the winter sunlight is extended from 6:20 in the morning to 5:15 in the evening. Just about 11 hours.
But that is not all. As Oregon is farther north, even when the sun is out, it is not as high in the sky. At noon in late December the sun only reaches 21 degrees above the southern horizon. Point your arm straight up, drop it half way to the horizon, then drop it half way again. That's as high as the sun gets during the shortest days of winter. The sun angle for San Diego at noon in mid-winter is 34 degrees.
In late June the angle of the sun at noon in Oregon reaches 68 degrees above the horizon. In San Diego it is much closer to overhead--at 81 degrees (as you'll recall, straight up is 90 degrees).
By moving to San Diego I gave up pronounced seasonal changes, including not being able to go birding for an hour or two before work in late spring and early summer, as I used to in Oregon. But I'm getting a more even amount of sun now, throughout the year. Even so, I've noticed that it is now dark when I get up in the morning... reminding me of a poem I knew in childhood.
Friday, September 12, 2014
|Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California. August 31, 2014. Greg Gillson.|
In her web site to birding San Diego County (last updated about 2008?), Mary Beth Stowe gave brief directions to birding here, but I wasn't sure where to even park the car. Somehow, the directions were unclear. The first thing I had to do was reorient myself--the peninsula runs from the north almost straight south (not west, as I was trying to make it in my mind). Once that transition was made, compass directions made sense.
I received several replies to my request to the email list--some offering to show me around, others giving me directions and tips, including 3 maps. From these I made a huge map (below). Thank you, especially, to Annie Stockley, Nancy Christensen, Sara Mayers, Jennifer Baldwin, Susan Smith, and Geoff Rogers.
Getting there: From Hwy 8: Take it west until it ends into Sunset Cliff Blvd, then continue on to Nimitz Blvd. In 1/2 mile take the Famosa Blvd exit and follow the signs to Catalina Blvd/Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery/Cabrillo National Monument. From San Diego Airport: Take N Harbor Dr to Nimitz Blvd, turn left on Chatsworth until it ends at Catalina Blvd. Take Catalina left to the Cemetery. Parking: No charge. Most birders park on the east side of Cabrillo Memorial Drive in a dirt lot just outside the main entrance (see map below) and walk into the cemetery grounds. Some birders also drive into the cemetery proper (see "other notes" below). Hours: The Cemetery seems to be open at least dawn to dusk now. In the past the Cemetery grounds did not open on weekends until 9:00 AM, but was open much earlier on weekdays. Map Navigation: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego, CA 92106.
Where to bird: The main birding locations are noted on the map below. The ficus trees on the Northeast Loop and the pines along "The Dip" west of Cabrillo Memorial Drive are two popular locations to find rare birds. Birders move from tree to tree, examining each one. Many birds are also found along the perimeter fence line. Though probably best at dawn, a recent birder found different rare birds from dawn to late afternoon, apparently on several visits during the same day.
Other notes about birding this cemetery: Apparently there are no interments on weekends, thus some birders drive into the cemetery area and park on the sides of the road. There are restrooms at both the Entrance and Administration buildings. Respect the privacy of any mourners. At dawn and dusk you may hear the National Anthem played from the nearby military base as the flag is raised or retired for the day. In 2004 the Palomar Audubon Society wrote up a Visitor Conduct Guide.
So using this map I can now figure out where all this week's rare birds were!
Swainson's Thrush at The Wall9/3/2014:
Rose-breasted Grosbeak outside perimeter fence in far NE corner
Northern Waterthrush in the ficus trees in NE
American Redstart in the ficus trees in NE
Prairie Warbler in SE
Tennessee Warbler in ficus in NE loop9/4/2014:
American Redstart (continuing) same ficus tree in NE
Prairie Warbler (moved) Torrey Pine north of The Dip on the west side of Cabrillo
Olive-sided Flycatcher fence at the top of the hill north of The Dip
Brewer's Sparrow on west side along N Fence under pines
Prairie Warbler (continuing) same area north of The Dip on west side9/8/2014:
Green-tailed Towhee (#1) west of NW loop9/10/2014:
Green-tailed Towhee (#2) south of NE loop
Tennessee Warbler pines just north of The Dip on west side
Yellow-green Vireo in NE corner near Registrar of Graves
Grace's Warbler southeast of Admin Bldg(And yes, I misspelled "Entrance" on the map. I had "Enter" and then changed it.)
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
|Large-billed Savannah Sparrow. San Luis Rey River Mouth, Oceanside, California. September 7, 2014. Greg Gillson.|
It was soon apparent by its rather large conical bill that it was a sparrow--looking very much like a pale Song Sparrow. But it lacked Song Sparrow's very heavily streaked back, and the facial stripes weren't quite right. I then knew what it was: Large-billed Sparrow, a primarily Mexican race of Savannah Sparrow. It differs from other Savannah Sparrows in generally lacking the yellow lores that help beginners recognize Savannah Sparrows.
In 2009 there was a proposal before the checklist committee of the American Ornithologists' Union to split Savannah Sparrow into 3 or 4 species: 1) the main North American group of Savannah Sparrows, 2) Belding's of the salt marshes of southern California, 3) Large-billed Sparrows of coastal NW Mexico, and 4) San Benito Sparrow of an island off the coast of Baja.
DNA evidence actually groups Belding's and Large-billed. At first this may seem strange. Belding's, after all, is quite dark and Large-billed pale. But both are birds of salt marshes and both have rather large bills compared to other races. At any rate, the proposal to the AOU didn't pass. They wanted more studies on Belding's from north of San Francisco and more study of the San Benito form. Future research may answer the gaps in knowledge, so a split could come one day soon--if nothing else, splitting the Belding's/Large-billed group from the main Savannah Sparrows.
See my previous post on Belding's Savannah Sparrows, that also pictures a western form of the main continental Savannah Sparrow.
Monday, September 8, 2014
I began watching birds for a Junior High School science project in November 1972. It was also in November 1972 that I remember watching a Minnesota Vikings football game versus the Los Angeles Rams.
As I was born in Minnesota, the Vikings were a natural choice to follow. I remember the "One eyed, one horned, flying, Purple People Eater" song from grade school about 1967. The Vikings strong defensive unit of the late 1960's and early 1970's with Page, Marshall, Larsen, and Eller was named the Purple People Eaters.
In that 1972 game the Rams led 20 to 10 at half time. I think that is about the time I started watching the game. It was in the TV department of some store. That's all I really remember about where I was. It must have been in Albany, Oregon. As that is where I lived.
In the 3rd Quarter, Paul Cruse returned a Rams fumble for a touchdown for the Vikings. Then, Fran Tarkenton threw a touchdown pass that went for 76 yards to Bill Brown to put the Vikings in the lead for the first time. The Rams answered back with a touchdown of their own to take back the lead. It was now 27 to 24 in favor of the Rams and things got a bit crazy.
In the 4th Quarter, Tarkenton threw another long touchdown of 70 yards to put the Vikings up again. Both the Rams and Vikings scored twice more. When it was all over, the Vikings won, 45 to 41.
The Minnesota Vikings have been to four Super Bowls, losing in all of them, much to the delight of heckling fans of division rivals the Packers, Bears, and Lions.But those weren't the only heartbreaks for fans of the Vikings.
There were many years when I didn't watch football. But I remember the losses at the NFC Championship Games that prevented the Vikings from playing in additional Super Bowls. Former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre played for Minnesota in 2009. After beating the Giants 44-7 and the Cowboys 34-3, they faced the New Orleans Saints in the Championship game. The Vikings were still playing tough until their 5th turn-over of the game: Favre's ill-advised throw near the end of the game was intercepted, when he could have ran a few feet for the first down and a win! Overtime ensued and the Saints won, 31-28. In 2000 the favored Vikings met the New York Giants and were embarrassed 41-0. And who could forget the 1998 game (following a 15-1 season) with the Atlanta Falcons. Kicker Gary Anderson hadn't missed a kick all year. With less than 2 minutes left he missed a game winning 38 yard field goal! There were 30 seconds left and the Vikings were driving for the winning score! With dynamic receivers Randy Moss and Chris Carter a win was almost assured! What's this? Vikings coach Denny Green had quarterback Randall Cunningham take a knee to end the game in a tie and force overtime! Of course, the Falcons naturally won.
The Vikings have been losing a lot in recent years. At the end of last year it was so bad the coaches were fired (again).
So, yesterday, in the first game of the 2014 season, under new coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings played the favored Saint Louis Rams (moved from Los Angeles in 1995). Minnesota dominated throughout the game, not losing in the final minute as they did 4 or 5 times last year. The final score was 34-6. Will they keep winning? If this was the last 2 or 3 years the answer would be definitely not. But this year? There is hope. The schedule is tough. Several pundits said the Vikings were likely to be zero wins and 8 losses to start the season. Not. But then, again, dashed hopes are the modus operandi of the Minnesota Vikings. Next week the Vikings face the heavily favored New England Patriots and Tom Brady. We'll see....
Saturday, September 6, 2014
|San Diego Bay looking east as viewed from Point Loma.|
After a brief tour of the visitor center we went back to the marina area at the base of the peninsula and had lunch at Harbor Town Pub. They had some yummy fish and chips that Marlene had been craving since leaving Oregon a year ago. I had the seared Ahi Club sandwich. Both were very good.
|New Lighthouse (center and a bit right) and the Pacific Ocean at the tip of Point Loma.|
|Visitor Center with San Diego Bay in the background.|
Wikipedia for Point Loma.
Monday, September 1, 2014
|Western Sandpiper. San Elijo Lagoon, Cardiff-By-The-Sea, California. August 17, 2014. Greg Gillson.|
Map of range of Western Sandpiper throughout the year.
Bill long (longer than head) and drooped at the tip, and black legs identify Western Sandpiper from among the smaller shorebirds of the West. Baird's Sandpiper and the rare Semipalmated Sandpiper, and the larger Dunlin are similar.
The Western Sandpiper above shows the partial webs between toes, called "semipalmated."
The scientific name of Western Sandpiper is Calidris mauri, given in 1838 by Charles Bonaparte for his friend Ernesto Mauri. Think how different European history might have been had Napoleon taken up ornithology like his nephew Charles.