Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Birding Update: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Took a two-hour drive up to Merritt Island today, in the hopes of having a Big Day (meaning lots of species sightings and good photo ops). A Big Day is hard to accomplish by myself, since I don't own a spotting scope and I'm not great with shorebirds and peeps. I tend to see a lot that I can't identify. My solo one-day record is 74 species, but I managed to get 66 today, including a lifer: Northern Gannet! And some of my favorite species, including Roseate Spoonbills, Scrub Jays, and Reddish Egrets.

Spoonbills make every day better.
The highlights:

An enormous flock of white pelicans, literally hundreds...the most I've ever seen. They were hanging out with several dozen spoonbills and dozens more assorted egrets and white ibis. I didn't realize how many there were until they all flew up and headed over to a new foraging site...and the birds just kept coming...and coming...there was no end to their numbers. At first I started taking pictures, but then I just stood and watched in awe.

Likewise, the coots throughout the refuge probably numbered in the thousands. Perhaps tens of thousands wouldn't be an exaggeration.

American Coots

Scrub jays were abundant but secretive and not friendly this time around. Usually they at least come out to investigate me and the shiny grommets on my hat, but today they were camera-shy. Got some good looks at some of my favorite ducks: wigeons, pintails, and shovelers, and had a strange sighting in the early afternoon. At first I thought I was seeing a giant flock of blackbirds or starlings making their characteristic swooping, undulating circles. That in itself is cool enough to stop and watch, but these birds seemed too large to be blackbirds. When I looked at them through binocs, I could see patches of white on some of them. A few minutes later, I ran into a couple photographers who told me that the giant flock was comprised of WIGEONS (and was possibly two flocks) being pursued by a peregrine falcon. None of us has ever seen ducks flock or fly the way masses of blackbirds do. I wish I'd had time to get the video set up on my camera.

Wigeons on the wing
Spent a beautiful hour at Canaveral National Seashore, where I spotted what I first thought were several Masked Boobys offshore, far enough away that it was hard for me to make a positive ID at first. I didn't have my bird book with me, and although I've seen Masked Boobys in the Galapagos, I wasn't entirely sure what these were. They turned out to be Northern Gannets, allowing me to add to my life list. (And for the record, it's awfully awkward when you're sitting on the beach with binoculars, and someone asks what you're looking at, and you say "boobies!")

Canaveral National Seashore

All in all, a decent birding day. I wish I'd gotten my butt out of bed earlier, because I didn't get there until 8:30, and I think I should have hit the wildlife drive areas first. (Note: there's a new $5 entrance fee to access Blackpoint Wildlife Drive; however, you're on the honor system to actually put a fiver in the envelope.)

Species list for today

American Wigeon                 Mottled Duck
Blue-winged Teal                  Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail                    Hooded Merganser
Pied-billed Grebe                  Wood Stork
Northern Gannet                  Double-crested Cormorant
Anhinga                                  American White Pelican
Brown Pelican                       Great Blue Heron
Great Egret                             Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron                  Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret                        Cattle Egret
American White Ibis            Glossy Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill                 Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture                      Osprey
Bald Eagle                              Northern Harrier
Red-Shouldered Hawk         merican Moorhen
American Coot                      Killdeer
Spotted Sandpiper                Greater Yellowlegs
Ruddy Turnstone                 Sanderling
Laughing Gull                      Ring-Billed Gull
Herring Gull                         Royal Tern
Rock Pigeon                          Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher                 Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker    Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe                    White-eyed Vireo
Florida Scrub-Jay                 Tree Swallow
Tufted Titmouse                   Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher         Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Gray Catbird                          Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler      Yellow-throated Warbler
Palm Warbler                        Black-and-white Warbler
Common Yellowthroat        Savannah Sparrow
Northern Cardinal                Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle                 Boat-tailed Grackle

Daily total: 66
2012 total: 74
Life total: 422

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie: Why I Like Listening to Records

I won't get into the endless debate over the subjectiveness of sound quality. But I feel fortunate that my dad invested in a high-quality stereo system back in the early 60's that still works (most of the time) to this day. If I hadn't grown up with that record player, I might not have developed such a love of the ritual of listening to a record.

When I listen to music on my computer, all I do is click the mouse. A playlist doesn't require any involvement from me; eventually it turns into background noise and I may not even pay attention to what's being played. MP3s aren't tangible; I can't "see" the music, and there's no artwork or liner notes. And obviously my computer speakers, or earbuds, can never provide the same quality sound as a home stereo system. I don't feel the same connection to digital formats as I do a record. Even CDs don't give me the same experience; often you can barely read the liner notes or booklets due to small type, and I feel sort of "divorced" from the music if I can't see it spinning around hypnotically. Does that make sense? 

I like watching the needle read the grooves in the vinyl and magically turn that into sound. It's like I'm watching the music as well as hearing it. I can look at the grooves of a record and see where the quiet pauses are in the song. I can tell from the grooves if the song is quiet and acoustic. On vinyl I can literally see where the piano solo begins in "Layla". That's cool. It's tangible. Not to mention, an excellent-condition record with no scratches, and the rainbow sheen glistening against the black vinyl, is an absolute thing of beauty.

Plus, my turntable has a very distinct scent. I don't know how to describe it, but it's the smell of mechanical gears and grease and motorized parts. The smell of old electronics that were built to last. It's a good smell. Because it affects all these senses, I feel more of a connection to the experience of listening to a record.

First, I have to make sure I handle everything delicately. This is old equipment, after all, and my system is sometimes buggy. The turntable motor is starting to wear out, and sometimes it takes a minute or two to get up to the right speed. Then I visually inspect the vinyl, give it a brief check to make sure it's free of dust and fingerprints (I clean my records regularly.) I have to put it on the platter and gently lower the arm onto the record. I'm involved in the process, I'm making the music happen. I'm not just clicking a mouse or hitting a play button. If I want to cue up a song I have to pay close attention and watch where I'm putting the needle.

While listening to records I'm usually sitting on the floor or on my bed. Ever since I was a kid, I've enjoyed holding the cover in my hands as I listen to the music it contains, studying the pictures and liner notes or reading the lyrics. A 12" piece of cardboard with a gatefold cover or booklet can be a beautiful piece of art. If it's been stored away it often has a faint musty scent, same as old paperback books, that I just love. Plus, used records occasionally have someone's name written on them somewhere, and you wonder who that person was and if they enjoyed the album, and what they were doing while they listened to it.

33 1/3 RPM is hypnotic for me. One of my earliest memories is getting told not to touch the record player (I think I put a scratch in my mom's Neil Diamond record by touching it while it was playing, but I just loved watching it spin around so slowly, and frankly she shouldn't have left the record player in reach of a toddler!)

The simple existence of Side A and Side B also require the listener to stay involved. After about 5 or 6 songs, you have to get up and flip the record over or put on something else. (Unless you have auto-repeat on your turntable.) It discourages you from relegating the music to background noise or only halfway listening to a track. You pay more attention to the music that someone spent weeks or months creating. I have to admit that I do get fatigued sometimes with CDs that have "too many" songs on them...just because you can fit over an hour of music onto your album, doesn't necessarily mean you should.

Don't get me wrong -- I do have CDs and MP3s I use for trance and meditation, and music that I put on for background noise for zoning out while painting or making other artwork. I could never use vinyl albums for that purpose. But when I want the experience of listening to a record, putting it on the turntable and holding the cover in my hands just gives me a deeper connection to the music and the artists. It's a multi-sensory, listener-participation experience. And that doesn't even get into the brilliance of analog sound played through a high-quality system. However, that's another essay for another time.