Two amazing books: ” Birds Art Life ” by Kyo Maclear and “The Evening Chorus” by Helen Humphreys

 

 

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“In  Birds Art Life, writer Kyo Maclear embarks on a yearlong, big city adventure chasing after birds, and along the way offers a luminous meditation on the nature of creativity and the quest for a good and meaningful life.”

I recently finished Kyo’s Mclear’s memoir Birds Art Life and I was sad to put it down. It felt as if I was just getting to know someone – someone who shared my passions and the questions I have about the world around me. It was a conversation that I didn’t want to end!

 

“Birds Arts Life” is an astute memoir of connection and discovery, a distilled crystal-like celebration of the small and significant, the imperfect and the struggling, and the liberating effects of keeping your eyes and ears wide open.”

Through four seasons, and guided by a new companion, Kyo discovers the world of birds. These are the birds that pass through our cities and our yards. The birds that float on our lakes and rivers, both the remarkable and the unremarkable. Her words are a refreshing break from the sensational and newsworthy events that seem to shout at us every day.  She reflects on small things that create meaning in our lives – a choice is both bold and honest.

 

 

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“Helen Humphreys ‘The Evening Chorus’ is brilliant evocation of an unforgettable time and place and a natural history of both the war and the human heart.”

The Evening Chorus is a work of fiction that interweaves three compelling stories: James Hunter, who spends the second world war in a POW camp. His young wife Rose who, in James absence falls in love with another man, and James sister Enid who forms a friendship with Rose that alters the course of all of their lives.  Notably, for those interested in birds the character James Hunter is inspired by the real life birdwatcher John Buxton. Buxton, while held captive as a prisoner of war in WWII, studied a family of redstarts and wrote a book about his observations. Today this book is still regarded by many as one of the most comprehensive single-species studies ever undertaken.

The writing throughout The Evening Chorus is beautiful. Rooted in the rhythms and imagery of nature and featuring chapter headings named after various flora and fauna, this novel is moving, meaningful and a pleasure to read.

You can pick up Birds Art Life or The Evening Chorus at your local bookstore or through any of the major on-line retailers. I really loved reading these books and highly recommend them. ENJOY!

 

The Secret to Filming Wild Birds in Big Cities & “Jungles”

To film The Messenger we travelled across three different continents, as the film takes viewers on a journey from the northern reaches of the Boreal Forest to the base of Turkey’s Mount Ararat to the urban streets of New York – and more. In Toronto, we filmed with FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program). Here, at dawn, during migration season, volunteers patrol the city street looking for dead or injured birds. They document the dead and rehabilitate the wild. Some days are worse than others, as fatalities can range from zero a hundred birds or more.

Our shoot day was a lucky day for the birds, due to the weather conditions and migration patterns – collisions were low. So without much to film, our team headed by Joshua See (cinematography) and the multi-talented Caitlin McManus (sound) packed up their gear and headed home.

However, a short time later, Cait stumbled across a small flock of Golden-crowned kinglets that had collided with a building. Given that the day’s filming had been a bit of a bust – Cait called Josh back to the “crime scene” to film the collision fatalities. To find a group of dead Golden-crowned kinglets is a sad story indeed. These birds have declined by about 2.5% per year since 1966 – this translates into a 67% decline since 1966! Sobering statistics indeed.

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There is a ray of hope in this story.

There was a kinglet that survived, and it was sitting on the sidewalk stunned. Josh managed to get his camera out and ready in time to film this kinglets transformation from stunned to “back in the game” as it flew away. This has to be one of my favourite moments in the film. Watch it here:

We were really happy to see this little guy muster his strength and get back on this way. Golden-crowned Kinglets live in Canada’s dense stands of spruce and fir forests during summer, and when it gets cold they move south to spend winters across the U.S. Let’s hope the rest of his journey was safe.

 

Filming wild birds in the city has its challenges, but what about in the wilderness? This is a question I put to cinematographer Joshua See.

“Filming wildlife, tiny songbirds included, takes a special set of technical skills, nature-knowledge, and patience.”

“From the camera technical side of things you typically need large telephoto lenses and big stable tripods that support the camera’s weight and keep shots steady. You’ll also need strong legs to haul the gear to where the wildlife is!

An important ecosystem that we wanted to capture in The Messenger was Canada’s vast and notoriously thick Boreal forest. Wildlife biologist colleagues of mine often refer to it as the “Boreal Jungle”. With a massive camera slung over your shoulder, and a pack full of lenses and batteries, it definitely seems a fitting term!

The next critical piece is to find the birds you are looking for.

There are two main strategies that can be employed here: sit and wait, or listen and move.

While filming on location in Costa Rica more often than not I was able to identify busy bird locations where he could set up inconspicuously and wait. Flowering trees, ripe banana plants, or a shady trickling stream were bird hotspots.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman fine tune the "blind" that kept the camera hidden from the birds.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman fine tune the “blind” that kept the camera hidden from the birds.

Our incredible bird guide, Ernesto Carman from Café Christina coffee farm, took director Su Rynard and me to a large and beautiful tree next to an old café in a Costa Rican river valley. There, every night hundreds of Baltimore orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seek refuge under its canopy. We watched and filmed in amazement as streams of beautiful birds converged on the old tree.

Joshua See cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman. Filming at  Café Christina coffee farm in Costa Rica

Joshua See, cinematographer, with bird guide Ernesto Carman. Filming at Café Christina coffee farm in Costa Rica

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Back in the Boreal jungle, the best strategy was to listen for the songs of the songbird species we especially wanted shots of, and then to try and locate that male based on his loud song being broadcast through the forest. Having knowledge of birdcall identification proved invaluable.

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It’s also important to consider the time of day: birds are most active at dawn and dusk while the air is cool. Typically mid-day is when bird activity is lowest, and the sunlight least pleasing for getting the most beautiful frames.

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When all of the right factors come together we are able to get a close-up view into the often-mysterious world of songbirds.

Ultimately, the birds are the real stars and should take most of the credit for the beautiful imagery we see on screen. We are grateful for their participation in the production.

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Songbird Monitoring in Costa Rica with Alejandra Martinez-Salinas

Alejandra Martínez-Salinas had her first experience monitoring songbirds in mist nets in 1999. Her life changed from that moment on.  In The Messenger, she says “ I fell in love with the migrant songbirds because they are so small, but also strong. They are really determined to get somewhere”.  We filmed with Alejandra in Costa Rica last February.

Alejandra is an ecologist/ornithologist and a PhD candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program between the University of Idaho and CATIE, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba.  When she was still in college in her native country of Nicarauga,  Alejandra had the opportunity to assist a group of ornithologists from the Smithsonian Institute doing field work. Back then, she only learned how to set up and take down mist nets just prior to going into the field, and she didn’t have much experience releasing birds from the nets. Today, fifteen years later, Alejandra leads the Bird Monitoring Program at CATIE.

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Martinez-Salinas arrived at CATIE in 2006 to pursue her master’s degree in forest management and biodiversity conservation. Soon after graduation, with Fabrice DeClerck, one of her Master’s thesis advisors and Rachelle DeClerck, an environmental educator, she began discussing the possibility of setting up a bird monitoring program that could cover different types of agricultural land uses. It was clear from the moment they set it up that a monitoring program was not going to be a small task but they decided to give it a try. Seven years later, the bird monitoring program is a huge success.

Since 2008, they have been trapping and banding birds in six different agricultural land uses within the CATIE campus. They band and release wild birds in forest, pastures divided by live fences, cacao, multistrata and simple agroforest coffee and sugar cane plantations. To date, they have banded  9,000 birds, including 56 species of neo-tropical migrants.

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Our crew filmed a wonderful scene with Alejandra handling a Mourning Warbler, which had come back to CATIE after being banded in the same site the year before. Most common migratory songbird species visiting their mist nets are the Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Mourning and Tennessee Warblers, Alder Flycatcher and Swainson’s Thrush. Some of the rare or one-time visitors include Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers,  Bay-breasted and Blackpoll Warblers.

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Alejandra is very concerned about how monoculture farming is affecting diversity and habitat on coffee farms. She is currently conducting experiments to prove that birds can have a significant effect on reducing harmful insects, like the crop damaging coffee berry borer.  She says if they can convince the local farmers that the birds can do just as good a job as chemical pesticides, it will be really good for the birds, because more farmers will want to have more diverse crops to attract more birds to their farms, and the farmers will in turn save money on pesticides.   Reducing pesticides benefits the whole ecosystem in many ways.

In the last seven years, hundreds of visitors from many different countries and backgrounds have come to visit CATIE.  Each of the visitors leaves the bird banding stations knowing a little bit more about songbird conservation in agricultural lands and the importance of saving all species for a balanced ecosystem.

Watch for Alejandra on screen in The Messenger, to be released later this year.

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Scientist uses light study to prevent bird collisions

Last year we were with bird expert Bill Evans as he conducted one of his DIY experiments: beaming lights into the sky to test the impact of artificial light on night migrating birds.

Inside his home laboratory, Bill used weather radar to determine if the birds would be migrating across our rural New York location. That’s right – flocks of songbirds are large enough to appear on weather radar systems. “We still have a low cloud ceiling and maybe some light drizzle so the birds can’t see the stars they use for celestial navigation,” he said. “They’re going to have to rely on their internal compass or other cues that we’re not even aware of.”

The light rain is good for the study.  Water particles in the air refract light and lead birds to aggregate. Bird aggregation in cities however, is bad news. “The phenomena is of course what’s causing the tower kill phenomenon,” he said.

Toronto’s Fatal Light Awareness Project estimates that between 100 million and one billion birds die from collisions with buildings every year in North America. Bird collisions typically occur at night when birds are migrating and lights inside buildings are turned on. Bill is trying to understand the mechanism that induces light aggregation in birds, not just in cities, but for the ever increasing numbers of communication towers and wind turbines.

That night Bill learned that certain colours of light are more dangerous than others. Red light, which is typically blamed for bird mortality at tall TV towers, did not provoke bird aggregation but did with blue, green and white light.

Listening to the audio recordings was especially telling. Within minutes of the lights being beamed into the sky the calls of the confused birds increased dramatically. As soon as Bill turned off the lights the calls ended.

In some instances, industry is adopting safer lighting for communication towers and turbines. As for the rest of us, can we be convinced to turn off the lights in our cities?