The call of the birder

by Mark Zaugg 7. April 2012 10:29

Mom loved travel.  She loved meeting people in her travels.  I'm much more shy than her, she'd be openly stepping forward, saying hello, talking about shared interests and being her gregarious self.

I really liked Costa Rica and the people I travelled with were all incredible.  I feel a little strange since my daughter and I tended to sit by ourselves more than I would have chosen in retrospect.

One of my best social moments of the trip was when we were riding up the escalator in Houston about to go through screening and some of the kids from our tour spotted us and waved goodbye furiously.  I'm sure I was waving back with an equally huge grin on my face.  What a great way to end the trip, eh?

I find that one of the best things about meeting new people is they teach me so much about old friends.

I view my relationships in the light of new details.  I discover more interesting aspects about people I may have glossed over.  In the process I learn things about myself and who I am as a person.  Meeting new friends, being open to new experiences makes one capable of personal growth.  For a shy guy, that's a remarkable discovery.

So one of the things Mom picked up on after one of her trips - upon reflection it's quite likely to have been her trip to Costa Rica - was a newly discovered love of bird watching.  We were driving to the mountains for a picnic with my kids when she was excitedly pointing out a couple of birds on fence posts beside the road.

"Yeah, it's a couple of hawks."

"That one's a Red Tailed Hawk, and the other is a Swainsons Hawk.  Look, they're side by side!"

To this day I have no idea if that's a big deal or not.

For the life of me, I don't know if she actually knew which of the birds soaring way above us were Golden Eagles and which were Bald Eagles, but she was sure excited to point out the Bald Eagles to me.

Maybe it's too much taxonomy in school and never really being good at identifying species.  Maybe it's just a general hatred of being pigeon holed.  But I'm happy enough to see the bird, I don't feel like I have to know it's name, rank and serial number.

Those people that go chasing around the world to find a rare species of bird and add it to their catalog of birds spotted -- well, I suppose there are worse hobbies to have.  But I don't get it, it's not really for me.  I remember hearing a story where they were called "twitchers," just being close to a bird they've never seen before sends them into apoplectic fits to log the find.  I giggle every time I picture it in my mind's eye.

Until we were taking the boat to Tortuguero.  By luck, one of the birding enthusiasts sat behind my daughter and I.  "See over there?  That's an egret.  But just to the right, that's an immature blue heron."

Damn her.  She just activated the scientific part of my mind.  Immature blue herons appear white, they get their characteristic blue colour from eating shellfish, don't they?  Or am I mixing that up with something else?  Well, that's part of the reason I have the binoculars and the camera, so let's start figuring this out and learning something while I'm down here.

The next day we were taking boat tours up and down the river looking for wildlife.  I saw Phyllis in the middle boat and whispered to my daughter to get into that one.  A few minutes later Sarah came up and asked if she could get in too.  Awesome, you two are one of the reasons I chose that boat.  It was great to be out looking for wildlife, it was doubly good to be with the guys that brought us up the river in the first place, it was glorious to be with the 'serious birders'.  I knew we were going to spot a lot along the way and I just knew that I'd be actually learning while we went, not just a "hey look at that one over there."

The next two days were my favourite of the trip.  Spotting the wildlife was fantastic.  If you look through my pictures you'll realize that I tried really hard to capture what I could.  I was so excited to see what was there.  There are a few things I'll need to point out for you to spot.

First, if you look carefully at what I took photos of, you'll be able to notice that I got more and more selective in my shots.  Early in the trip I shot a bunch of birds side by side.  Wide shots with multiple birds became unacceptable very quickly.  I needed close ups of one bird early on.  That was for two reasons - usually so I could look it up and identify it later and so I could remember the story of when I took that photo.  Just about all of the photos have a story behind them - if they didn't I tend not to open the shutter!

The next thing about my photos you'll notice is that I took less replicative photos as the trip went on.  For instance, I took an awful lot of photos of anhingas early on, and then less so as the tour went on.  Part of that is getting better with recognizing species of birds and remembering that I'd already seen one of those, I didn't need another photo.


Third, when I did take another photo of an Anhinga later, it was to show something amazing.  I took that photo because I saw a a female atop a branch or a male drying his feathers.  This was from learning about the birds, from feeling more comfortable with taking shots, and from feeling more trust that I was going to be able to learn from Sarah and Phyllis about what I was seeing and they'd point out great moments I could shoot.

While we were staying in Fortuna near the Arenal Volcano, I woke up early just before sunrise.  I went out on the balcony - partially to not wake my daughter and partially to enjoy the lovely weather - and heard bird calls.  I snuck back into the room, grabbed my binoculars, and slipped through the sliding door again, peering through the dim light to spot what I could see.  Minutes later I snuck back into the room, pulled my camera out of my bag, and snuck back to the balcony to start taking photos of the dozens of birds that I was seeing.

An all-green parrot-like bird, yellow rings around its eyes, a red protrusion on it's beak.  Yellow and black birds, almost a skull cap over it's head.  My second and third hummingbirds spotted!  Soon it was mayhem, trying to see new birds, new things, hopefully get them on camera.

Oh.  My.  Ghod.

I have fallen.  I have become...  A birder.

I think Sarah and Phyllis were sitting together, talking with each other at breakfast.  I felt too embarrassed to interrupt with my horrible realization.

Right then I suddenly understood something significant.  Quite possibly one of the most important lessons of the trip.  I finally understood just why Mom had seemingly become a birder overnight after she had been on a trip.  It's addictive, it's interesting.  The birds are so showy, it's so exciting to see something that's new.  Even when you see a species you've seen before, you begin looking for behaviours and actions that help you understand why it lives the way it does.  I understood a little more about the world around me.

I understood a little more about my Mom.

For the remainder of the trip, I imagined my Mom wedging herself in with the "serious birders" and having endless conversations.  I imagined her talking about when she saw a Quetzal, giving tips on how to see them, learning from Sarah how to be a better spotter.  I can say without hesitation that Sarah and Phyllis would have been great friends with Mom.  They were great friends to me.  Through them I learned a little bit more about who my mother was.

Mom would have been ecstatic to have taken the picture of the butterfly on Clara's arm.  So was I.  Mom would have loved to chat with the guys looking over the ox carts.  She would have adored spending time talking with the families, feeling energized from the kids, interested in the parents, share tales with the grandparents.  She would have loved telling stories of Winnipeg with Giselle and JP.

The trip was about loving Costa Rica.  But also about loving the people we shared it with.  This is my thanks to all of you.  You taught me much about Mom and me, about my daughter and me, about Mom and my daughter.

Oh, and yesterday I spotted a couple of magpies playing in the snow, and a swarm of chickadees, and a V of Canada geese...

Sentimental Journey

by Mark Zaugg 4. April 2012 20:00

Goona take a sentimental journey
Goona set my heart at ease.
Goona make a sentimental journey
To renew old memories.

Doris Day, eh?  I honestly didn't know that.  I actually hear my mom singing it in my mind.

In some respects, Mom and I are very opposite people.  She loved travel, I'd much rather stay at home.  I love science and technology, she tolerated as little as was required to get what she wanted done.  Put me near a beach and I head straight for the water while she stuck to the sand.

She directly gave me many of the passions I have in my life.  An endless love of music.  A rock solid sense of justice.  Acceptance and welcoming of neighbours as friends.

The trip to Costa Rica was a gift for my daughter.  I think we all wish that the two of them went together, but it didn't work out that way.  What I'm finding so difficult upon our return is how emotionally charged the trip is now that it's over.  Prior to the trip, it was easy to say that I was taking her in Mom's stead.  Now it's really tough.  As of today, officially, we went, had a great time, and that's the extent of it.  Im not going to add any further explanation.

Earlier I mentioned the opportunity to see Southerly skies as my treat.  I also talked a bit about being outside the hotel in San Jose, looking up, and not recognizing a single damned thing above me.  That was pretty odd.  But if you're reading this, you know me well enough to know I wasn't going to settle with a little stargazing befuddlement.

Near the end of the trip, at the JW Marriot along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, I was able to find me a relatively dark corner just south of the hotel.  It was far enough away from the trees I could get a view above me, far enough from the lights I got a fairly good view above me, not far enough from the road that someone spotted me and wondered what some idiot was doing with camera and binoculars pointed up in an obscure corner of the grounds.

I get the astronomy bug honestly from my dad.  One of the very first things he taught me was the impact upon him when he was in Australia and he saw the Southern Cross. 

I saw it myself.  This genuinely was a life's ambition fulfilled.

One trip.  So many generational ties.  No wonder I get emotional.



This is the photo I took at 2:02 am on March 29, 2012.  In celebration of that moment I release this image to the public domain.  A copy of the full size of this image may be found here.

Government at Cross Purposes?

by Mark Zaugg 4. April 2012 08:43

While on vacation in Costa Rica, our tour guide was quite candid while talking about government in his country.  There were many things I found myself admiring as he spoke.  I was also shocked with some of the problems he described they were having.

If my understanding is correct (all errors my own), they have a court that's akin to our Supreme Court.  When legislation is passed, affected people lodge complaints which are heard by this court.  Unfortunately it sounded like much of the legislation was stalled and it was incredibly difficult to get laws enacted.  The example he gave was an extreme hike in traffic fines.  A traffic ticket was previously in the range of (using a very approximate number) $40.  The government decided to raise fines significantly - probably for the same reasons they do the same thing here: putatively safer behaviour and raising more revenue.  Fines were raised astronomically to $600 a ticket.

It went to the court where it was argued that $600 was more than a month's salary for someone being paid minimum wage.  The court rolled fines back to $20 - even lower than they were before.  Our guide suggested the sensible solution was a much smaller raise in fines - perhaps from $40 to $60 and a points system against driver's licenses similar to what we have here.  What he said sounded imminently reasonable to me, raise fines to fix behaviours and create solutions to problems, try solutions which have already proven themselves to have worked out.  It sounded to me that it was all rolled back regressively because of what appeared to be simple greed on behalf of the government.  Dirty baby bathwater.

That's futility in my mind.  How can anything positive get accomplished when you have two segments of government working at such cross purposes with each other?

So I ask the question, why does our government in Alberta seem so bent on working at cross purposes with itself so often?

Why do we consolidate Health Regions to nine, then to one, then expand middle management because a single Health Region proved to be unwieldy and non-responsive?  Why do we starve the medical system in the lean times then throw money at it hand over fist to solve problems once they hit critical mass?

Why do we scrimp our education system, nickel and diming parents with fees every step of the way but promise new schools and services every time an election rolls around?

How can we cut, cut, CUT the wages and gold-clad pension plans of our MLAs but sneak in committee pay and other perks and benefits when the public doesn't appear to be looking?

To me, the root cause is an absence of planning and forethought.  Not a complete absence, mind you.  Different arms of government appear to have plans in place.  Consolidating health regions makes sense when you're looking at dozens if not hundreds of small, independent organizations that don't work together well and can't take advantage of bulk ordering.  That consolidation does not make sense when it takes so much effort for the beast to lift itself off the ground that any savings get wasted in the process.  Not building schools willy-nilly is a good thing, but refusing to replace a school that is so dilapidated that it costs more in repairs than to build anew is utter foolishness.  Declaring a pay cut while backhandedly giving yourself a raise is simply deplorable.  I cannot think of a single ethical occupation that allows its members to give themselves raises without oversight.

The solution to counter productive measures is open and transparent planning.  The plans need to be discussed in wide forums, reaching as many people as possible.  Each person affected deserves to be heard - how else can we judge what impacts we are exerting upon other Albertans?  These are our neighbours, friends and family!  We feel the impacts upon ourselves!  Stop dumbing down every issue for the soundbyte and start planning complete solutions.

So the election is a week old and I'm catching up now.  I feel a little gobsmacked so far.

Let me pose the question: Which part of the election have you been paying attention to so far?  Which person was most offended by what someone else said?  Which person is making the biggest promise that will benefit you the most personally?

Or are you listening to the conversations about solving the problems of Albertans?  How to best ease the boom and bust cycles?  How can we best live healthy, happy lives and how to best regain our health when we fall sick?  How we can best raise our children to have the skills in the future to be the workers and leaders our society will need?  How do we ensure that we use our resources wisely, at fair value, and without irreparably harming our environment?  How do we ensure that our representatives will remain responsive to our needs and actually represent our wishes?

I will discuss views on specific points raised and topics of interest.  I don't plan to shy away from conversation, I welcome it.

But this is my line in the sand.  My discussion is about solving problems Albertans experience, and our problems deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.  It is true, we can dream bigger.  We'll be further ahead when we talk about what really matters to you and to me.

Tomorrow: Ralph Bucks 2, sequels suck.

I can see that....

by Mark Zaugg 10. March 2012 21:31

Okay, it's time for the exciting part.

We've talked about the packing, the shots, the odds and sods along the way.  Now I get to show off the cool stuff.

Every once in a while I get asked about which telescope I'd recommend for a budding astronomer.  Generally people know that I love looking at the sky, I'm a geek, and therefore I have a lot of knowledge of the tools of the trade.

The truth is that I haven't owned my own telescope for many, many years.  When I last had a telescope, it was much less capable than modern telescopes and wouldn't hold a candle to what's commonly available today.

When people ask what to get for a telescope, the first question is always, "What do you want to do with it?"  A little backyard stargazing when the weather's nice?  Learning the stars in the sky and the constellations and asterisms you can find?  Collecting Messier objects through a single night of the year?  Long exposure photographs of easily observable nebula?  High definition photographs of the most distant galaxies we can observe in the universe?

Okay, for that last one, you'll want to buy the Hubble Space Telescope.  It'll cost you a pretty penny, and you may be interested in picking up a space shuttle to go with it for servicing missions.  The HST was launched on Endeavour, and subsequently serviced by Discovery, Columbia and Atlantis, so pretty much any shuttle will do.  If you do purchase the HST and a shuttle to go with it, I'm calling shotgun right now.

Okay, so given a limited budget and being firmly grounded to locations with a breathable atmosphere contained within our solar system you're probably going to be looking at a more modest scope.  I have my eyes on a nice Dobsonian telescope down the road with a camera mount when I have time to play with a little astrophotography for fun.  I'm not in a rush, things are getting better each and every year and I want to be able to do it right when I can.

So for the short term, I'm keeping strictly within my budget and following my own advice.  Don't start with a telescope at all!  Begin with a good set of binoculars.

Looking at Jupiter through binoculars.

Jupiter on the left, Venus to the right.

Now, budget being the operative word, I haven't been able to go buy the binoculars I really want.  They get costly in a hurry, I could have spent $700 to $1000 just for the binoculars and I really don't want to spend that much on a binoculars I'm taking on vacation for their very first outing.  I'd hate to have them broken or stolen on their first trip out.  On the other hand, I don't want something severely underpowered so I won't want to use them again at home.

My choice was the Nikon Action Zoon 10-22x50 CF binoculars.  They'll work well for looking at wildlife on vacation and for light gathering at night while I'm in the tropics.  It's amazing how much better I can see stars looking through them.  I'm hoping they'll help me view the Large Magellanic Cloud while I'm down there.  The zoom feature is nice to help orient myself in the sky and then zoom in for a better look at specific features.

It's a small thing, but something I'm very much looking forward to both in the short term and in the future at home.  Given more cash and less concern about travelling with them, I would have preferred to hold out for a set of high quality binoculars designed specifically for astronomy, but we have to balance life after all.

I'm starting to feel excited about spending time with my daughter and making the most of a lousy situation.

Renewal in another place.

by Mark Zaugg 2. March 2012 21:46

I'm really burnt out.

I can feel the restlessness.  The lack of clarity and concentration.  The short temper and intolerance for other people's stupidity.

I'm really, really burnt out.

Yeah, you've sent me an email lately and I haven't responded.  I've got somewhere around 600 emails piled up right now, about half of which I actually WANT to read and maybe a third I want to scan through.  Of the half I want to read, I've probably got about a third of those I want to reply to.  Don't hold your breath if you've been waiting.

I have absolutely no desire to go to another meeting.  I've been to so many unproductive meetings over the past couple months I'm sick of 'em all.  I dread March 13th -- I have three meetings scheduled for that night, one starting at 6:30 pm and the other two starting at 7:00 pm.  Here's a surprise: I'm not going to two of them.  I think I've mostly settled on which one I'm going to attend.  I'm sure my choice is going to disappoint some people - well, I simply can't do everything.

I want to sit down and read and teach myself new things and my focus is...

I procrastinate on things I really want to get accomplished and off my plate.  On the other hand, I have managed to get a lot of little things done as I go.

I don't even have my usual spewage of nonsensical attempts at humour I normally tweet to my adoring public (and the other 1220 or so of you who clicked "follow" entirely by accident).

What is it normal people do right about now?  That thing that happens when cabin fever sets in so bad you start looking for any excuse to escape those four padded walls around you?  That time when the curling playoffs have ended and the hockey playoffs have yet to begin?

Today, the day has come where it is time for me to swing my mind forward and begin thinking about -- a vacation.

Not one of those "stay-at-home-and-file-paperwork" vacations.  Not one of those "go-camping-for-a-week-and-try-to-smell-like-the-forest" vacations.  An honest to ghod, get thine self out from the ordinary and do something different vacation.  I have never been on an actual vacation like this.  Maybe a family vacation when I was younger.  Certainly nothing remotely like this as an adult.

My mom planned a special trip to take my daughter to Costa Rica.  I don't really have a desire to travel the world, but the responsibility fell on me to take my daughter down there in my mom's absence.  My job is to make sure that she has a good time.

My joy, however, is going to be something quite different.

Tonight I opened up Stellarium and did something I have never done before.  I set my location to San Jose, Costa Rica.  I let time progress beginning at sunset and proceeding through the night.  My dear friend and protector Orion did not stroll just above the horizon but rose high into the sky - practically at zenith given how much trouble I had moving the mouse without having the sky spin around the pointer.  Constellations I only barely remember as names that skim along the very edge of the horizon instead popped glaringly into view.  Fornax, Columba, Pyxis, Antlia.  They're just names to me.  I don't really know any of their stories or details.

I discovered new names I did not recognize at all.  I'm sure I've seen them before in star maps, but they have no meaning to me.  Horologium, Reticulum, Pictor, Carina.  The Southern Pleiades?  How fascinating!

I had a realization tonight.  In about three weeks I'll be fulfilling a dream.  A little after sunset, I'll be looking straight to the south and trying to find the constellation Dorado.  Just beneath it, if the skies are dark and the weather cooperates, I'll look for a little puffy cloud.  A galaxy, a companion to our own, a member of our cluster.  The Large Magellanic Cloud.  I won't be able to see the Small Magellanic Cloud, it will have set before the sun. 

Some time around midnight I'll look to the south and see Crux - the Southern Cross.  My father talked about seeing Crux when he lived in Australia.  I never believed I'd see it with my own eyes.  It's almost a certainty that I'll see it at some point.

My daughter's gift is a trip to a foreign land.  My gift is a trip to foreign skies.  May they be cloudless and dark.


Change is the only constant.

Welcome to the semi-exciting new look, same crappy blogger.

All comments are still moderated, I'll approve everything that isn't spam or offensive.  Agreement with His Dorkasaurus is not necessary.

What has changed is that I don't have 1000 junk accounts clogging up the system that I have to go through one by one.  Yes, you too can set up an account and no longer need to wait for me to notice you posted.  Completely optional.

As always:  Have fun, be respectful.


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