Thursday, July 26, 2012

Foothills of the Santa Ritas

Last week Pops and I embarked on a birding excursion to southeast Arizona that had the potential to be marvelous, with a chance of becoming epic, and that ended up being legendary for Butler birding. With only half a day at our disposal in the Santa Rita Mountains, we had to hit the ground running. We planned to check out the Montosa Canyon on the southwest side of the mountains first, and then explore the Kent Springs trail before moving to the upper Madera sites. It was a complicated itinerary with little room for error--clearly a two-man job. 

We reached Montosa Canyon by 6 am, optimistic that we might find a lingering Plain-capped Starthroat seen visiting a feeder near the canyon wash. The Plain-capped Starthroat is not as excitingly colored as the name implies, but it is one of the rarer Hummingbirds to stray into Arizona. 

We drove a ways into the canyon seeking out this oddly placed but well-attended feeder. It was moved from its original location, and so Pops and I had to do some splorin' (isn't life hard sometimes?). Before we found the feeder, we were treated to some excellent views of Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Canyon Wrens, and Cardinals. We were also pleasantly surprised to see Varied Buntings off and on throughout the morning, though only the drab females stopped for a picture. 

The songs of various rufousy desert Sparrows echoed in the morning air, interrupted by the occasional outburst of Mexican Jays. Although the canyon was very birdy, we did not locate the feeder by 7 am, and I began to get antsy. We needed to see the Starthroat and get up to Madera before it got too late in the day, or so went my worrying. To add to my anxiety, this little female Black-chinned Hummingbird landed nearby and tempted me to turn her into a female Lucifer. Nice try Black-chinned, but you're too big and gray-cheeked! Plus the throat's wrong. Really I don't know what she was playing at...

The hummingbirds weren't the only little birds playing mind tricks. With its more gradual inclines and thick scrub, Montosa Canyon is one of the most reliable areas in the U.S. to see Black-capped Gnatcatchers. Pops and I spent a fair amount of time, really at all of our stops, trying to turn Blue-grays into Black-capped. The best way to ID a Black-capped, especially a silent female, is by the underside of the tail, but even there they look very similar to female Blue-grays. I am afraid the Black-capped Gnatcatcher still eludes me.

Apart from the no-show Gnatcatchers, the day was a great triumph. Pops, who is far more patient than I, found the feeder farther east of our original area, but by that time some other birders and beaten us to the good spots. After about fifteen minutes of waiting and a few twitches brought on by other Hummingbirds, the Starthroat finally made an appearance. It stayed only for a moment and as far as I'm aware did not reappear that day. While hovering near the feeder, Pops and I had great views of the bird's white back, and this blurry photo helped us note of the the proper facial markings. Oddly enough, the other birders in our little cul-de-sac convinced each other that they had, in fact, only seen a Broad-tailed Hummingbird. I don't really see Broad-tailed at all in this bird, and I'm not one to make declarations too soon. I guess some folks are just hard to please. Truth be told I was ready to leave Montosa before Pops found the feeder. I'm very glad that we stuck it out and the virtue of patience was once more reinforced for me.

From Montosa we drove north again, up Madera Canyon road to the Bog Springs campsite. From Bog Springs we took the steep rocky trail towards Kent Springs, hopeful of a few more new birds, some of which were common to the area and others not so much. Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were one of my 'must-see' birds this summer, and they did not disappoint. The first half of our ascent was fairly quiet and fairly hot. While we did get some great looks at a family of Arizona Woodpeckers in the scrub oak, the initial trek was on the unenjoyable side of arduous. But as we approached the Kent Spring intersection we were ambushed!

The Flycatchers flew back and forth across the trail, shrieking their battle cries with great temerity and daring us to fight them for their territory. We were lucky they did not unleash any face-curdling, sulphur-tinted belches (from which these birds obviously get their name), because they're pretty face-meltingly beautiful already. Arizona's version of the Great Kiskadee, these magnificent flycatchers shown brightly even in overcast weather.

Though the Flycatchers were a definite highlight, they were not the primary objective of our Kent Springs excursion. This semi-obscured House Wren wasn't the primary objective either; it's just cute.

No, the main attraction of Kent Springs this summer is a half-mad half-insane Scarlet Tanager that has been living near the Kent Springs/Bog Springs intersection since the end of May. It had been my hope to see my first Scarlet Tanager this year, presumably when visiting family in Pennsylvania this past June. I did not expect that my first Scarlet Tanager would be in southeast Arizona in July, about 1,200 miles west of its normal range.

Lunatic birds are some of my favorite birds, and the Scarlet Tanager was no exception. As one might expect, this canopy dweller was a real lame-o about getting his picture taken, but the sensory overload when that Scarlet caught some's seared in my brain forever. Every summer Madera Canyon pulls in specialty Hummingbirds, Flycatchers, and Elegant Trogons, but a Scarlet Tanager too? Truly this must be one of the best birding sites on the surface of the sun (Arizona).

The birds received most of our attention, but they were not the only attraction. With its different elevations and ecosystems, Madera Canyon is also a herpetological powerhouse. This Yarrow's Spiny Lizard served as a reminder that superb coloration isn't just the domain of birds and butterflies. If only the birds had this guy's mellow attitude.

Kent Springs wasn't the last stop of the day. Pops and I still had a score to settle with the Elegant Trogons of upper Madera. We backtracked to our vehicle and drove further up the canyon towards the Super Trail (a fitting name for an epic showdown eh?). The stage was set for a great reckoning, like the kind of reckoning that must be immortalized in a special-effects laden, over-the-top Michael Bay movie, but more on that later.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Going Han Solo At San Pedro

As a part of my trip to the Huachuca Mountains, I paid a visit to the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, a nice strip of greenery just west of Tombstone. The target species for this area was Yellow-breasted Chat and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and while the trip was ultimately a success, it was a struggle. Heading up Miller Canyon, the trails and the area are pretty straightforward. There is lots of room to roam in the San Pedro grasslands and chaparral, and unfortunately when I'm going 'Han Solo' (alone), getting lost becomes a real problem, and it's exacerbated when I'm driving. After about an hour of detours and switch-backs and run-ins with the increasingly suspicious Arizona border patrol agents, I eventually settled down around the Charleston Bridge in the San Pedro area, and got down to the business of birding.

I parked near a trail head northeast of the bridge and was greeted by the day's first bird, which had parked himself around the same time. It's hard not to love Ash-throated Flycatchers, especially when they come to great you at your car.

I could only interpret this bird's visit and acknowledgment as a good omen. Acting as the hand of fate, he soon flew to an adjacent tree and directed me in the best direction for my quarry. Such a good sport and always eager to help, he totally didn't mind that I was there to see other, more glamorous birds. Ash-throated Flycatcher: Man's second-best friend.

The Charleston River (more of a crippled stream) runs through the middle of the San Pedro refuge, supporting a green strip of willows and cottonwoods amidst the surrounding desert scrub. Though it's no Mississippi, this rangy river provides some prime real estate for Yellow-billed Cuckoos and other riparian passerines.

The knocking calls of the Cuckoos drew me back and forth across the water, and though these elusive birds stayed high in the canopy, I was able to sneak in a few glimpses. At least from this angle you can kinda see the tear-drop white patches on the tail, one of the Cuckoo's more notable features.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are not the only canopy dwellers in the summer time; birds like this aptly named Summer Tanager also add some color and verve to the tree-top goings on. Tanagers and Orioles are some of the few reasons to look forward to an Arizona summer, but they can be very stubborn photographic subjects.

There's plenty of red to see lower down in the trees too, principally provided by the stern and stunning Vermillion Flycatchers. Northern Cardinals and House Finches do their part as well, but the blazing red on this flycatcher is incomparable.

The riverbanks are lined with green, but behind the green grows the brown grass and shrub which, thoough less pleasing to the eye, still provides habitat to other interesting birds. I believe this is a female Lazuli Bunting, demonstrating here why her coloration has its own advantages, even if it has a weaker aesthetic than the male's.

The female Bunting's plumage was muted and she stayed very quiet too. The same cannot be said for the more boisterous and beautiful Yellow-breasted Chats, which sang out their territorial claims from atop the mesquite and ironwood trees on the perimeter of the grasslands.

For a long time I had been wanting to see America's largest Warbler and the Yellow-breasted Chats did not disappoint. The San Pedro preserve doesn't have quite the same 'wow' factor as the canyons around southeast Arizona, but it does drawn in some specialty birds that you won't find higher up in the mountains. It's definitely worth a visit, just make sure you have a map when you go!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

And A Very Happy Anniversary To You!

Has it really been one year already, dear readers? You may be thinking, "Probably not," and you'd be right, because for the first two months of blog existence I had almost no readership whatsoever. And then there are those of you who only joined once it became cool (just kidding; it's still not cool, and don't be holding out any hope for that to change soon either). Exactly one year ago today, almost down to the hour, I lit up a sign, nailed up some shingles, and opened Butlers Birds and Things for business.

Alas, we've made no money, but this has been a great year nonetheless. I have seen, learned, and enjoyed so much in birding this year, and the prospect of being able to share my experiences with other people has been the key motivation to this happiness. I would first and foremost like to thank my wife, Maria, for her unfaltering encouragement and proof-reading. I would also like to thank all of you who have taken the time to stop by, read posts, raise an eyebrow, share your thoughts, etc. and thus encourage me to continue developing as a birder. On that note, it is now my pleasure to unveil, the next exciting development with Butler's Birds and Things!!!

Behold! The first ever Butlers Birds and Things video/documentary clip. This may well be the only known footage of the elusive Red-tailed Hawk, and the narration supplied is my own tribute to David Attenborough, the lovely and inimitable voice behind the magnificent Planet Earth nature series.

*Some or all of the facts supplied on this video may or may not be totally false or true or contradictory

Thanks for a great first year y'all,

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It's Miller Time!

One of the most well known and well loved birding and hiking destinations in the Huachuca Mountains, Miller really is the champagne of Canyons. In addition to Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and rare Tanagers, Miller's Canyon is one of the best places in Arizona, and perhaps North America, to see a Spotted Owl. Naturally I didn't see one, but along the way I did stop by the Beatty Ranch at the base of the upper canyon. The Beattys maintain a small bed and breakfast operation in the canyon and, best of all, a fully stocked Hummingbird station that draws in all kinds of southeast Arizona specialties.

The drive up to the Beatty Ranch is dry and dusty haul, but along the way you can expect to see Spotted Towhees, Mexican Jays, and Canyon Towhees all rustling about in the sparse undergrowth. Though their North American range is limited to the southern points of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, Mexican Jays are among the most sociable and vocal birds one might encounter in the sky island chain. This doesn't mean they're exceptionally fond of people, or at least of me, but through very careful and super scientific observation I discovered that these Jays like to eat nuts. This Jay was going mano-a-mano with a scrub-oak acorn.

The acorn proved to be a very stubborn adversary, and after a minute of squeezing and smashing, the Jay withdrew to a more private setting where he could eat in peace.

Perhaps his retreat was brought on by the annoying curiosity of this Canyon Towhee, a bird which the mellow blue Jays must regard as a stumpy and ugly neighbor. It occurred to me that Jays are, in many ways, like the stereotype New England WASPs. They're pretty on the outside and strain to keep their complicated social networks in order, but they can also be very snooty and cruel to anyone who doesn't meet their standards. The Canyon Towhee, by contrast, is less to look at, but I'm sure he leads a rich inner life...

This female Woodpecker, unlike the noisier Towhees and Jays, did not want to be seen at all. Tough luck! People say that if you want someone to look at you, you just have to stare at them and soon, for some supernatural reason, their gaze will gravitate towards you. That doesn't work with birds, probably because they have better things to do then sit around gawking all day. This realization, in turn, made me feel a little bit sad about myself...

Unless you're staying overnight at the Beatty lodge, you have to park before the complex and do a bit of walking to access the Hummingbird site and kick in a few bucks towards the sugar fund, but the jaunt is worth it. Over a half dozen feeders and cotton wads draw in the Hummingbirds while visitors sit on shaded bleachers and photograph, oogle, ogle, and let the mind be boggled by all the color.

Anna's Hummingbirds and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are the most common species during the Arizona summer and they overrun Miller Canyon too. But if you're looking for a spot to consistently see some of the less common Arizona specialities, it's hard to beat Beatty's. So well maintained are the feeders that even Black-chinned Hummingbirds, the mostly mildly colored and mild-mannered of the bunch, have time to sit, drink, and show off their immaculate posture (I wish I stood up this straight after a binge of drinking).

Of all the migrant/summer Hummers whose North American range is exclusively in Arizona, the Broad-billed is perhaps the most common. These stunning birds are somewhere in between the Costa's, Black-chinned, and Broad-tailed Hummers, which are fairly common throughout the state, and the other rarer, more selective migrants that tend to stay in the southeast corner. The first time I saw one of these Hummingbirds I was stunned, and didn't imagine anything could be more shimmering. Amazingly, after twenty minutes at Beatty's you'll start to pass them over in favor of other, rarer birds--a true testament to the quality on display.

This immature Broad-billed still has some gorget to grow, but at least his pops, perhaps pictured above, has shown him where the best hangout is, the best place to pick up chicks.

All the same, this female Magnificent Humming is definitely out of the young Broad-bill's league. Not only is she Magnificent, she could totally crush him if he tried any funny business. At five-and-a-half inches, she's one of the larger Hummingbirds in the area, and it takes something extra special to get her attention.

Enter the Magnificent male...

It was a thrill to see this aptly named bird, but I'm pretty bummed with my inadequate photography. Cameras should come with a label on them that says something like, "Warning: This device will cease to operate properly if photographing wildlife that is above this camera's pay grade." Maybe it's just as well that the male Magnificent Hummingbird is a blurred bird; proper exposure of this hunk is known to cause paralysis in female Magnificent Hummingbirds and some humans.

Amazingly, the highlight hummer of the day was not the Magnificent. Lucifer, Berylline, and Plain-capped Starthroat could all be show-stoppers at the Beatty theatre, but they were not on stage that day. In a sense, this contemplative male Blue-throated Hummingbird wasn't either, but he brought a standing ovation out of me nonetheless.

I found this handsome fellow while striking-out on the Spotted Owls. An intriguing peeping sound drew my attention to a large Arizona sycamore where this clement critter was seeking some respite from the noontime sun. These large Hummingbirds have an appeal similar to the Black-chinned Hummers--a comparably conservative coloration with just the right accents. Hummingbirds are not known for their economy of style, but the Blue-throated pulls it off pretty well. Most of all, I was just glad to find a new bird--a new Hummer especially--that wasn't at a feeder. The feeders at Beatty's are terrific, but the one thing they don't provide is the full satisfaction of seeing a new bird out in the ruff.

I haven't birded Miller Canyon as much as I should, but even in my limited capacities it is a wonderful spot fully deserving of its sterling reputation. April through September; it's Miller time!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sweeties of the Sweetwater Wetlands

Away down south in Arizona lie the sky islands of the Huachuca, Santa Rita, and the Chiricahua Mountains. These aria peaks provide rugged trails and absolutely fabulous birds for those scrappy individuals daring enough to pursue them. These short ranges provide some of the birding hotspots in North America. But farther north in Tucson there is another little birding gem tucked away. The Sweetwater Wetlands are well known to those who live and bird in the area, and they provide a more relaxed, gentle setting to see both resident and migrant waterfowl, and maybe a few rarities as they pass through the state. It is only logical that some of the cutest bird chicks in the Milky Way are found at Sweetwater, where the stagnant ponds and thick bullrushes provide plenty of cover for the adult-birds-in-training.

Of course, the most common species of waterfowl at the Sweetwater Wetlands is the Mallard. But being a freshwater haven in the arid southwest, the Wetlands are home to more than just the usual Mallards and their mangy domesticated cousins. Mexican Mallards, or Mexican Ducks, are an interesting subspecies that can be found in the southern parts of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Both sexes resemble the female Mallard, but with darker bodies and a pure yellow bill.
Unlike the bourbon drinking Mallards, the Mexican Ducks prefer Tequila and can be indentified in their calls be their tendency to roll their 'R's.   

Without a doubt, the main attraction at the Wetlands right now is this Pied-billed Grebe family. With a nest close to the boardwalk and two fireworks-faced chicks, this mama Grebe is one of the most popular individual birds in the Tucson area right now. And doesn't see just look so happy!

Hopefully the recent attention hasn't robbed Sweetwater of its gentle charm for these nesting birds. Child celebrities have a hard time in human society. Then again, child celebrities don't always have such caring parents as these two seem to have.

Within the first ten days of hatching, Pied-billed Grebes spend a lot of their time aboard their parent's backs. The wings of the Pied-billed Grebe are somewhat stunted and infrequently used for flying, but they secure the chicks very well.

The Sweetwater sweeties went for some piggy-back rides around the Keyhole Pond, but honestly the algae there looked thick enough to walk on. The lobed-toes of the Grebe really come in handy for swimming through pea soup.

Except in states with freezing temperatures, Pied-billed Grebes are year-round residents. This little tiger will likely live and hunt in the Sweetwater ponds for years to come. The sense of destiny and heritage was an emotional overload for the little guy as they surveyed his kingdom, and he let out a primordial roar!!!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dark Night of the Soul

Here I have arrived at a time of sadness; this is the very last of the beach posts. It has been tremendous fun to recount the shoreline sightings from my June day in Jersey, and a welcome mental respite from my current location, which is in fact cooking me in my own skin (which I guess is better than being cooked in someone else's skin huh?). I saved my favorite bird for last. Even though I saw about ten new birds on the beach, my favorite sighting was of a bird I often see around the riparian preserves in Phoenix, but not like this.

Oh sigh...a Black-crowned Night Heron with breeding plumes out in front of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a beautiful thing. I see these birds almost every time I visit the Gilbert Water Ranch in southeast Phoenix, but there it definitely didn't feel like I was seeing the birds in their proper element, or at least in their most pure element. Crashing ocean waves and a stingy salty breeze? That's as elemental as it gets!

There was a pair of these stocky-but-elegant birds on the Barnegat Bay wharf. While the little shorebirds all scuttled along in an anxious state, these lanky striders made their rounds on the rocks with calmness and dignity. They seemed to be enjoying the the sounds, the sights, and the smells as much as the actual hunt and prospect of getting food. While it was enjoyable to watch them surveying the churning tide with their ruby-red eyes, it was even more interesting to watch them gaze out into the horizon for minutes on end, apparently thinking about very serious things. Heavy sits the crown, as they say.

Every once in a while they'd turn and look right at me. GLARE! Is there just something in human nature that makes us unnerved by red eyes? I mean, they're not too uncommon amongst birds, and the red eyes are one of the Black-crowned Night Heron's best features. Even so, I think I'd rather cuddle with a three-legged Harpy Eagle that hasn't eaten for a month than with this Night Heron.

Look at this picture for a minute and then see if you too think this bird's legs are too far forward on its body. I know, it's just the way it's standing but still...looks funny.

Even as the sun climbed high overhead, the Herons maintained their stoic vigil atop the rocks. They looked so cool and so morose, but when they turned their heads they'd catch the pleasant sea breeze and get a nice fluff. I don't often think of Night Herons having a lion's mane but, well, there it is.

 And sometimes they'd really get fluffed! It's not just the bold red eyes of the Black-crowned Night Heron that are so intriguing; it's that the birds are also shape shifters. I really wish I could do this (whatever is going on in the bottom photo); it looks way more satisfying than a heavy shrug or sigh.

I had to go out to the Atlantic coast to be reminded how awesome Black-crowned Night Herons are, and I'm ashamed to say I might find the more muted Herons in Phoenix to be dull by comparison. At any rate, it was fun to have one of these more common birds still serve as a highlight in my trip. Batman may have based his motif on the Bat, but I'm thinking the Dark Knight had Black-crowned Night Herons as the inspiration for his attitude and style.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Please Give Half a Hand...

To the Semipalmated Sandpiper! I'm nearing the end of my beach posts. Since this is the second to last one, the semifinals, if you will, it seems only fitting that the Semipalmated Sandpiper is the featured bird. Usually when I get to show a new bird on the blog, a bird that's never been featured before, I try to accompany it with some sort of unique facts or, best of all, SUPERLATIVES of the species, e.g. "largest of the..."; "northernmost breeding..."; "most colorful nostrils..."; "most likely to become president."

I'm ashamed to say it, but coming up with some accurate superlatives for the Semipalmated Sandpiper is difficult. They've got some color and some intricate plumage but not too much. They're small but not the smallest, shy but not the shyest, and semi-palmed but not the semi-palmiest. What I noticed and appreciated most about these birds on the Jersey beach was how they acted like a cement of sorts, sticking the different bird groups together.

Seeing cosmopolitan groups of shorebirds on the beach is by no means unusual, but during my very brief experience on the Jersey shore, the Semipalmated Sandpiper was the common denominator in all of the groups. Whether they were tuning in with the Turnstones or playing with the Purple Sandpipers, partying with the Plovers or even gaming with the Gulls, the Semipalms were always mingling and mixing it up on the beach, making sure everyone felt comfortable at the party. A lot of the big and colorful beach birds bring attitudes with them. The Semipalmated Sandpiper is a chill bird, an essential thread of the beach bird social fabric.

So here's to you, Semipalmated Sandpiper, for helping to hold everybody together.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cassin's Sparrow Revisted

Some of you may remember this little mystery bird that I posted on May 30th. I've still been discussing it off-and-on, with all kinds of interesting theories and ideas coming up along the way. At the time of the sighting at Tres Rios, I had been hearing what I thought was a Cassin's Sparrow but couldn't find or photograph anything that fit the bill. 

I had no proof or reason to believe that the photographed bird was the one singing, especially since this bird was more or less in the open and I hadn't been able to spot the singing bird at all. My first thought was that it was an out-of-place Rufous-winged Sparrow. A lot of people made strong arguments for Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and since that seemed a more likely sighting in the area, though still unusual,  I was slowly pulled in that direction.

Most recently I posted this photo on the Facebook Bird ID group of the world page. It generated another interesting discussion that served as a great review of the arguments for Rufous-winged and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Then there was an exciting twist when Kenn Kaufman stopped by (always nice to have the input of someone who can say "I've written the book on...") and posited, rather convincingly, that this was in fact a rare rufous morph of Cassin's Sparrow. 

All of the sudden the Cassin's song, long forgotten, came back into play. There had been a general agreement that while this bird was kinda Rufous-crowned and kinda Rufous-winged, it wasn't really either. Then this rufous-morph Cassin's idea came along--and I can honestly say I'd never heard of any morph Cassin's Sparrows--which is the identification I'm sticking with for now.

It's nice that I can count Cassin's Sparrow as more than a 'heard only' bird. It's even nicer that this identity crisis and the debate it sparked has helped me learn a lot more about all three contenders than I would have ever learned otherwise.

Thanks to all who participated on the discussion, both earlier on this site and on Facebook. For those of you who are curious, here's a link to the facebook thread: Cassin's Sparrow Talk.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"The World Is Your Oyster"

Surely this must be the credo of this hooded mollusk-massacring maniac. And just look at this cool bird. With all of his fancy bracelets and leg adornments...this American Oystercatcher is living the American dream. This particular bird's jewelry may also have something to do with the location, as I hear many people in Jersey prefer the larger, louder pieces. Hey, we pay $20 per pound for this sort of seafood and hope it's fresh. He eats it every day and looks good while he's doing it (something I certainly cannot manage). The world may indeed be his oyster.

As successful as they are, Oystercatchers are still pretty funky-looking shorebirds. Their legs are a pale, fleshy tone, while their mollusk-mutillating bills appear downright cumbersome! Their yellow eyes, outlined in orange, are very striking. When they take flight they have a bold white stripe sort of like a Willet, and their black executioner's hood caps it all off. Needless to say I find the birds to be wonderful...

These Oystercatchers demonstrated why birding on the beach is so much fun. There's plenty of light, the shorebirds aren't overly fidgety, there're no obscuring tree branches or shadows, and if you're a photographer, the ocean always provides a nice background. These birds can strike some pretty nice poses too as they scout out the swirling tide-pools and frothing eddies.

My legs and the Oystercatcher's look very similar (minus the anklets), but the bird withstood the chilly Atlantic water better than I did. For that matter, it also had much more luck prying open the various bivalve mollusks than I had. Everyone has different talents...    

It's just as well that they were making all the catches. I don't really enjoy raw clams, muscles, or oysters that much, even with hot sauce. I certainly do enjoy watching Oystercatchers, and maybe capturing a few photos to enjoy a month down the road.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

American Birds at Their Finest

There has been so much turbulence in the American political scene lately, and it seems any pensions for moderation have been long lost. Allegations of left-wing socialism and right-wing fanaticism are commonly, derisively exchanged in the American forum, and a preoccupation with the purported evil of the opposition often detours any cooperation. So seldom now are political discussions about the means to an agreeable end; so often are they diatribes to further cement diametrical ideologies. Defining, categorizing, and simplifying, most often along political, racial, and religious guidelines are the methods of the day. With the ill-will between political factions and identities at an amazing high, it is important on this Independence Day to remember those moments of excellent inter-political cooperation, when Americans were still able to form that more perfect union in the pursuit of goodness and happiness. 

Such was the case with the famous 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift, perhaps the most brusque outburst of American initiative, ingenuity, unity, and kindness in the entire 20th century. With the close of World War II, the German capital of Berlin was divided into different sections of control among the allied powers. However, the city itself was entirely enclosed and isolated in the larger Soviet-controlled portion of Germany. By blockading all railways and roads into Berlin and starving the city, the Soviets hoped to stimulate enough discontent that an uprising would occur in Berlin that would empower radical communist government and catalyze the communization of Germany proper. It was a very blunt, very real threat, and one which promised to reignite conflict in war-torn Europe. Would the united States send in the troops and bombers and go to war with the USSR? Would it acquiesce and leave Berlin in a state of starving isolation? There were many arguments and many opinions over the proper course of action. There were not massive advertising campaigns, speaking tours, or kitschy celebrity dinners. Politicians did not focus on developing their cults of personality, but instead on decisive action.

A Democrat president, Harry Truman, and a majority Republican legislature signed the Marshall Plan into effect, and from June 24th, 1948, until May 12th, 1949, the Allied airlift kept the badly damaged German capital, which was meeting only 2% of its vital production needs, supplied with adequate food and coal until the blockade was lifted by the much-shamed Soviets. A total of 278,228 flights, flying a total 92 million miles, provided 13,000 tons of food and 26,000 tons of coal per day to Berlin. At its height the airlift actually brought more supplies into the city, per day, than had been brought previously by ground. The Americans continued the Airlift through the exceptionally harsh winter of 1949, and ran it so precisely that one plane departed for Berlin from an Allied base every 30 seconds. The United States dropped 1,783,573 tons food and coal, at a total cost of $224 million, which if adjusted to modern inflated standards equals around $2 billion. For less than the cost of what the U.S. pays Israel and Pakistan annually to not fight each other today, the United States kept Berlin fed, heated, and out of communist control, and did it all by plane. 

Independence Day is something of a bittersweet holiday now. It always prompts a heavy dose of nostalgia and disappointment with the contemporary state of things, not just with political issues but the disjointedness and polemics in society today. There was a time when objective, eminent goods were easily recognized, and party politics were kept secondary. Now it seems the American political and social dialogue has broken down, though the threats to life, liberty and happiness, have not. The same pride and perseverance that shocked the world with the Berlin airlift, appears to be shockingly dwindling today.

Of course, it does little good to just be pessimistic and mopey on Independence Day. By all means, the barbecues should be lit and the coolers should be stocked. I will feel great pride today as I remember and recount these stories of American bravado, and hope that the future will not be without a few more.