Archive for the 'Reviews' Category


Rare Birds of North America is a very interesting book, but it’s definitely for the advanced birder. The front matter, however, includes an excellent discussion of vagrancy and the question of how these birds show up here, through drift, disorientation, overshooting, dispersal… which should be of interest to all nature-literate folk. It’s a much-noted fact that most vagrant birds are juveniles; we humans have an awful lot to learn about migration (if we ever can), but it is safe to say that experience counts as well as innate ability for the birds.

I have seen 3 of the 262 bird species in this book in North America (I’ve run into a few of them in their home territories, but that’s not the point).

*There was the Gray Hooded Gull on the Coney Island beach in the summer of 2011. That’s one of precisely two recorded instances of this tropical bird in North America.

*The Western Reef Heron in Coney Island Creek in 2007 (the book says “Brooklyn Co.” but of course the Borough of Brooklyn is actually coterminous with Kings Co. Nobody pays for copy-editing anymore.). This species in particular has a sentimental value for me, since I was working as a cub reporter on Nantucket in 1983 and learning that the Front Page was correct about how newspapering makes you cynical as a philosophical dog, when another of these African herons showed up there; I didn’t cover the bird beat, then, but I did pen a snarky column about the faithless abandonment of the Herring Gull as result of this interloper’s celebrity. Someone was not amused, making it a job well done by my lights.

*Northern Lapwings: my U.S. view of them was on Nantucket in 2012, too late for a cited inclusion in this volume.


SerengetiHeading towards ‘Sconset on the Milestone Road will take you past the Middle Moors, which are nicknamed “the Serengeti” on Nantucket.SerengetiThis nickname is probably the result of too many nature documentaries and the lesson that they usually teach: nature exists somewhere else and is exotic, something to sit back and enjoy from your living room without having to put up with foreigners and suspect plumbing. In fact, though, these 400 acres are maintained in coastal heathland and sandplain grassland, both rare habitats on the island and elsewhere. This landscape is exotic enough and doesn’t need external referents, thank you very much.

Once sheep grazed this area, making sure nothing ever grew very high. Left untended by those Mesopotamian herbivores (bought in after whaling lost its preeminence for the island economy in the mid 19th century) or, now days, human wielding mowers and fire, the land would quickly become a dense scrub thicket. Habitats are always in flow. Why should we stop them? In this case it’s largely because of the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) and some other invertebrate and plant species that make this rare habitat home. 9780226205557Did you catch that reference to “Mesopotamian herbivores”? I picked that up in George Monbiot’s Feral, where he rages against sheep as the “white plague,” an invasive species which has devoured the British Isles and remains the main obstacle to re-wilding. Monbiot argues persuasively, because he calls up the science, that the British Isles, particularly the wet western edges of Wales and Scotland, used to be lush rain forest. Temperate rain forest, like our Northwest, which often takes second place to the glories of tropical rain forest, but are just as rich and wonderful. (The skirts of Dartmoor felt like rainforest when I trod under them last year.)

This is a very interesting book. I will admit to be bogged down in the initial chapters where the author seemed to be in the midst of mid-life crisis and an urge to find his inner animal and challenge the elements. Written very well, but I can take that or leave it. But his ultimate point kept me through to the far more exciting later chapters: we need to re-wild, largely by letting it alone, our world.


bear1On the liturgical calendar, today is St. Martin’s Day. In the late Middle Ages, “Martin” was often the name given to bears abused and belittled in circuses and other equivalents of side-shows. This is not coincidental, Michel Pastoureau shows in his fascinating The Bear: History of a Fallen King. bear3The Church waged a long war against bears, which in Europe were already being represented in Neanderthal and Cro-Magon painted caves, the very caves bears may have lived in. (These would have been cave bears, now extinct; Pastoureau is most concerned with the brown bear, now pushed to remote parts of Europe and threatened everywhere there.) The Germanic tribes who butted against Roman expansion were bear-worshippers. The Viking Berserkers wore bear shirts, which is what “berserker” means. Kings and other heroes once proved themselves by battling bears man-to-bear. The nurturing she-bear raised various Greek and other mythological heroes. The hyper-sexualized male bear threatened female humans, as did the quasi-bearish Wild Man, whose hairiness was akin to the bear’s. Bärenfähigkeit means the capacity to become a bear. Half-bear/half-human figures populated the old tales.

This all enraged the Church, who promoted the (foreign) lion as the true king of the beasts and painted the bear as a tool of, if not actually, Satan, in its efforts to stamp out old forms of non-Christian worship. St. Martin’s Day was laid over older celebrations of the beginning of bear hibernation, a sure sign of the coming winter.

Rich in cultural references, Pastoureau’s book reminded me of a couple of things. I’ve only dipped into Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, where giant bears play a critical role, an interesting comparison with the Christianology of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s character, Beorn, a sort of werebear. The name Beorn — and Bjorn, Bern, Ursula, Arthur, and many others — all come from various languages for “bear.”

Pastoureau has also written three books on the history of colors. I’ve read Blue and Black and and recommend them.

“In killing the bear, his kinsman, his fellow creature, his first god, man long ago killed his own memory and more or less symbolically killed himself.”bear2Bear ceramics at Cortlandt St. R train station by Margie Hughto. “Trade, Treasure and Travel” originally placed in 1997, survived the World Trade Center bombing and was reinstalled in 2011.


BombusA bumblebee rumbles into the heart of the flower.

k10219Identifying bumblebees of the genus Bombus is not an easy task. In their new identification guide, Bumble Bees of North America, Williams, Thorp, Richardson, and Colla note that color patterns “can be strikingly variable within species and strongly convergent between.” As an example of the variability within a species: for the Yellow-banded (B. terricola) they show five queen bee patterns, five worker bee patterns, and seven male bee patterns; they also note its similarity to five other species. Oy! From my limited experience, I’d go with the bee systematist they quote: the genus is “morphologically monotonous.”

This guide uses color patterns, but also tongue length and cheek size to break down the forty-six species in North America north of Mexico. (Also used to differentiate these are male genitalia and genetic evidence, things even more remote from field observation.) Measuring a bee’s cheek isn’t something a lot of amateurs are going to do (and never mind the knees!). bombusMany of you are doubtlessly aware of the importance of honeybees as pollinators, and how their numbers have plummeted because of Colony Collapse Disorder. But bumble bees are also used commercially in pollination, especially in greenhouses, where their services are worth $10 billion annually. Unfortunately, the bumble bee pollination industry has spread bee diseases through their practices, introducing hazards to wild populations around the world. World-wide, bumblebee populations are mostly in a bad way, due to habitat loss, insecticides, climate change, pathogen spillover, and the introduction of exotic/invasive species. Systemic insecticides used to treat seeds are particularly insidious, as they remain present throughout the growing plant, including the pollen and nectar gathered as food by bees; if not immediately toxic, these poisons can disrupt foraging and colony development over time.

Since the beginning of this century, one North American species, the Franklin (B. franklini) has had such a rapid decline it is considered close to extinct; another, the Rusty-patched (B. afinis) is the only bee on the federal endangered species list.


Among many things gleaned from this volume, I learned that Bombus diversity is greater in habitats with cooler temperatures and montane landscapes, unlike most other bees, who prefer warm dry, Mediterranean style habitat. The Polar B. polaris, for instance, is found across the far northern swath of the continent.

BTW:”Bumblebee” seems more English English; “bumble bee” more American English. bombusPhotos taken around Brooklyn in recent weeks. Join me next Wednesday at Brooklyn Bridge Park where we should see a few late afternoon bumblers. Also, could it possibly be that you aren’t subscribing to these posts yet?

Three Books

Unknown-1Sometimes I find the perfect description about what I’m up to here:

“In an age when the ecological integrity of our planet is threatened on so many levels, anything that strengthens those connections, or makes meaningful our daily arrangements with the world around us, is a form of resistance, a kind of love forged with home that has the potential to be fiercely protective.” Julian Hoffman, in The Small Heart of Things. Born in the UK, raised there and in Canada, Hoffman lives in Prespa, Greece; the Prespa Lakes area is a unique tri-national park, shared by Greece, Albania, and the awkwardly, absurdly, named Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Greece protested the use of the name “Macedonia,” also the name of region within their own country, if you remember Philip and that whole crowd sweeping down from the north). These belles lettres never forget the human history, as horrible as it has sometimes been, soaked in the landscapes.

UnknownDesert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey, is something completely different. At least at first glance. Abbey was one of the spiritual grandfathers of the activist environmental movement. He was also, based on these essays, curmudgeonly, cranky, and a pain-in-the-ass. But his writing about the desert of the Four Corners area are remarkable; this a classic of nature writing for a reason; I’ve taken a long time to get to it. He is best on the elemental: water, rock, sky. The heart of the book is a voyage through Glen Canyon, something no longer possible because it was flooded soon after he and his friend made the trip. The American madness about the desert is that we pretend it isn’t a desert; the greater Phoenix obscenity boasts 200 golf courses! And all around them, the evidence of a previous civilization that failed in the dry country stares back at them. With a grin, perhaps. Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell, named after explorer John Wesley Powell, who saw the desert for what it was. That naming honor was a bitter irony. Jet-skiers today zoom over the drowned glorious side canyons, Native American ruins, and whole world of habitat that was the canyon. Now we have just this book and Eliot Porter’s photographs. (That’s the original cover above; I like it much more than the softcover I found.)

Unknown-2Birds Britannica, by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey. I discovered this through a reference in the Hoffman and got hold of a library copy on this side of the Atlantic. It’s amazing: a mix of field guide (but too big for that!) and cultural study of the British love of birds. Hundreds contributed to this species-compendium of names, lore, and traditions, as the rise and fall and sometimes rise again of species over the centuries is charted. But let’s not forget the hate: game keepers are the great villains of the piece, slaughtering any- and everything that might interfere with some fucking aristo’s potted hunt. And the egg-collecting sociopaths, who still present a threat. While you may never enjoy any of these birds in the feather, this book should still interest you.

Animal Sex

nnrIt turns out that one of the best ways to tell species apart is to examine their genitals. There’s an incredible variety of forms of male and female sex organs, even within the species gathered together in a genus, and so for years biologists have been separating, for example, beetles that otherwise look rather similar, into different species because their genitalia look and correspondingly work together completely differently. This holds true for humans and our closest relatives, the apes and other primates, as well.

It’s only been more recently that scientists have been looking at the reasons for all this genital variety. Menno Schilthuizen’s new book, published by Penguin, is a fascinating look at the evolutionary underpinnings of the “naughty bits,” which of course are only naughty in an absurdly Puritan culture like ours.

So they might not actually be naughty, but they sure are varied! I was continually surprised by the examples here — the aforementioned beetles and primates, plus squid, spiders, ducks (NSFW!), dragonflies, sharks, mice, snails, and more — all making us H. sapiens seem rather, as we say, vanilla. But only seems: research discussed here on human strategies — of sperm dumping, sperm scooping, etc. — what our bodies are up to without us having any idea of what’s going on, should make us question most of what we know, or rather assume, about human reproduction and sex.

Schilthuizen begins with fundamentals and definitions. Among these is that excellent question of why lifeforms even bother with sexual reproduction at all when cloning is just so much easier, particularly when we consider that the first instances of sexual reproduction were probably something like the way fish do it still, the broadcasting of eggs and sperm into the water, a rather random and wasteful approach. Yet the random mixing of DNA (culturally, we usually call this “making babies”) turns out to a brilliant way to counter the also-random dangers of the environment and breakdown-prone life-systems (disease, mutation). So, it’s actually a good thing, biologically, that your kid looks like the postman; it’s a blow against the enemy in the endless war against viruses, bacterium, mutations. Which reminds me of the bower birds: super-successful bower-builders do get the lion’s share of mating opportunities, but unsuccessful ones are still in the game, sneaking around while the master-builders are hard at work on their bowers. It’s a wide, wonderful world out there, and this book makes for great reading about it. I highly recommend it.

*On a personal note, I ran into Menno birding in Prospect Park last month. An ecologist and evolutionary biologist based at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, he was here in the erstwhile New Netherlands to promote his book and enjoy some of our fabled spring migration. I’m glad I asked this unusually well-dressed birder if he was seeing anything interesting — he said he was, because it was all interesting to a European used to a completely different avian fauna — since I hadn’t otherwise heard about this book. Check it out. And prepare to start thinking differently.

Notes for Further Reading and Doing


Rob Jett’s ebook The Red-tailed Hawk Journals: A City Birder in Brooklyn is now available. Rob has been documenting the Red-tails of Brooklyn for more than a decade and tells how he first came to these adventures. It’s a great story.

Liam Heneghan has written a fine essay on the #1000UrbanMiles project he instigated. (I am quoted.)


I’ll be doing two Listening Tours in Prospect Park this spring.
Listening Tour May 4th 6am, with Brooklyn Brainery
Listening Tour, May 10 6am with NYC Wildflower Week.

Here are some of my previous musings on these curious mediations
Just Listen
The Listening Tour


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