The Art of Taking Off.

Today was the annual Christmas Bird Count in Hawaii. I’ve participated in a few of these over the years but never in Hanalei Valley where I was stationed today.

As you may know, the event is hosted by the Audubon Society, getting its start in 1900 during the early days of the conservation movement. Because I didn’t know much about the history of the event, I flitted over to the organization’s website to do some research.

Apparently, prior to the 20th century, a holiday competition known as the Christmas Side Hunt was popular, in which hunters shot as many birds as they could. It just so happens that only months before, the last known passenger pigeon in the wild was sighted. And shot.

According to the Chipper Woods Birds Observatory, at one time, the passenger pigeon was probably the most populous bird on the planet. Population estimates ranged from 1 billion to 4 billion individuals, comprising up to 40% of the total number of birds in North America. Let that sink in. Its range covered the primary forests east of the Rocky Mountains. Their flocks could darken a sky for hours and days and were estimated to measure a mile wide and up to 300 miles long. Let that sink in, too. That would have been in the mid 19th century. The very last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in captivity in 1914. That’s a short span of time to go from billions to zero.

In response to all this killing of birds, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman devised an alternative–the Christmas Bird Census. That first year, twenty-seven birders participated in 25 locations, tallying some 90 species. Nowadays, tens of thousands of people participate. Last year, 2,403 different species were counted. The data is used to study the status of bird populations across North America.

I spent the morning traipsing through mud and, on occasion, tall, wet grass in and around the taro fields of Hanalei Valley. Not a bad assignment. Not bad, at all. There were other counters in other areas. I haven’t heard the final tally yet, but the majority of our birds were Hawaii’s endemic and endangered waterbirds–the cute and scurrying coots; the stately moorhens; honking ducks; brooding geese; and slender and long-legged stilts.

But due to a sore shoulder, I didn’t carry my Big Girl Camera. In fact, I’m pretty sure my shoulder troubles stem from lugging the new-to-me, super-serious, super-telephoto lens around the past couple months. So, I didn’t snap any bird photos today. However, when I was still hefting The Beast around, I snapped this series of shots of a Laysan albatross taking off.

Laysan albatross, as you know from reading my meanderings, are a long-winged seabird that spend most of their lives soaring over the ocean. Hence, their legs are positioned toward the backs of their bodies, making them as aerodynamic as possible. They are, you could say, front heavy. Their walk is slightly awkward, leading to the nickname given to them by military personnel at Midway–gooney bird. For what it’s worth, I do not like that nickname. It is not accurate. Not at all. It does not come anywhere near capturing any of the bird’s unique characteristics. It doesn’t speak to their grace in the air. The way they can soar across oceans with only a few beats of their wings. Or the fidelity they display to their mates. Or the amazing built-in GPS in their brains that allows them to fly tens of thousands of miles over several weeks and, then, land on a dime next to their chick awaiting a meal in its nest.

I digress. What I want to share is how they take off.

When the winds are blowing like the last couple days, all a Laysan albatross has to do is spread its six-foot wings and pop into the air. But when the winds back off, it takes a little more effort to get airborne. Their paddle-like feet slap at the ground as they run and flap their wings. It looks like this. Scroll down really quickly to get the general idea;-)

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan Albatross Take Off-5

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan Albatross Take Off-2

Laysan albatross

#International Women’s Day: Protesting Fashion

harriet hemenway by john singer sargent
Harriet Hemenway by John Singer Sargent, 1890.

Some women defy fashion trends. Like in the late 1890s when Boston socialite and visionary Harriet Hemenway would go birding—wearing white sneakers.

The woman didn’t stop with footwear. She refused to wear hats with feathers, wings, or taxidermied birds, and this time, instead of flouting the fashion of the day, she outright fought the killing of birds for the millinery trade—and got 900 other women to join her.

Hemenway’s concern for the plight of birds wasn’t some fanciful fear. In 1886, plume hunters were setting their sights on some 50 North American bird species for the millinery trade. This was about the same time the passenger pigeon, once numbering in the billions, was headed straight down a dead-end street to extinction, and the snowy egret, a favorite of milliners, wasn’t far behind. Hemenway wasn’t about to let that happen.

Because she cared.

Hemenway’s society would lead to the creation of the National Audubon Society and, eventually, the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that would outlaw the killing of migratory birds for commercial purposes, one of the United States’ first federal environmental laws.

It’s amazing what inspired action can do.

My friend Christa—a bird biologist—shared this story with me yesterday as we drove to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, a seabird sanctuary. And, today, is International Women’s Day, so I am taking this opportunity to celebrate Harriet Hemenway.

Birds have become a big part of my life these days. I didn’t plan it. It just happened.

So, I wasn’t much surprised when a friend texted me a photograph of a baby bird as I was writing this. Charlie found the chick in his yard, no parent around, looking very weak.

I called a few of my ornithologist friends while Charlie did some research on the Internet. We think the bird is a dove, not native to Hawaii. I see hundreds of these as I go about my everyday life. And, yet, Charlie is doing everything he can to save this one bird. One very common bird.

Because he cares.

Harriet and Christa and Charlie are what I call Mothers of Nature. People who want to see this great diversity of life on earth go on. People who do not want to see a life lost or a species go extinct. People who care about nature, our environment, and the big blue-and-green speck of a world in which we live.