Meanwhile, at sea…

Brother- in- law George Graham has been getting more and more involved in observing, counting, and studying marine birds and fish off the coast of Massachusetts, so far as a volunteer. He sent this report and these excellent photos, as migration stretces its  lines down the coasts. My only caveat is that George will have to tell you what his acronyms mean.Take it, George!

“I finally made it on one of the last excursions of the year on the R/V Auk 25 miles out to the SBNMS with the crew from NOAA. We had a fantastic day this past Monday, calm seas, low wind and temps about 60. Pretty good score for an October day off Massachusetts Bay. The primary objective was gathering data on seabirds following a predetermined course of over 100 miles, secondary were mammal and debris observations. We counted over 1800 birds in about 17 species. A great experience. Now that I’m a trained recorder, I’m looking forward to riding the whale watches next spring as a Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward (S4 project).

“I was the test dummy for the safety brief, see gumby suit. Group shot of the S4 volunteers. The gent on the left is Wayne Petersen,  Mass Audubon’s Director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) program. He was a great source of knowledge and a pleasure to work with.”

Steve again. Scoters and eiders; more than a bit of nostalgia there. The two opposing poles, the yin and the yang  of Yankee bird hunting, are the slow- moving, rather comfortable ramble with a pretty setter through the transformed glory of a New England autumn, with grouse and woodcock as quarry, and eating such noble quarry cooked by traditional, classical recipes… I mean, the French cook such birds right.

And then there are sea ducks– shot from small boats,  often on dark days off dangerous coasts,  with an east wind blowing sleet and freezing rain at you midst turbulence and discomfort and the smell of salt air and wet dog. A Chessie might beat a Lab, and a ten bore might be the best choice in a gun. To cook them well you had best know some old swamp Yankee secrets or you’d do better to eat the legendary board you were supposed to nail them to.

You might be surprised which I remember best.

The Unfeathered Bird: or, why I was in Laramie

Carlos Martinez del Rio, “cyborg naturalist”, polymath, bibliophile, horseman, game cook, teacher, and doubtless a host of other things I don’t know about yet,  is director of the Berry Center Biodiversity Institute at the University of Wyoming at Laramie. In that position, supervising an ever- expanding net woven between science, art, and nature, he decided to have a show based on  Katrina van Grouw’s* incredible new book, The Unfeathered Bird, combining several talks and workshops with an art show. As Carlos knows everybody (you think I have a wide range of friends in my network?) he invited me to introduce her, as I had written a a glowing review of it for Living Bird, where I am a contributing editor. He also invited a bunch of us who correspond with him in what he calls “the Quilting and Gun Circle”; all will I hope get their due in the next couple of weeks– “Old Gunkie” Jim Caldwell (also a computer honcho there); his wife Penelope, who has at least two professions, one of which is artist and whose startling work will appear soon here; novelist and writing teacher Brad Watson; bugman and philosopher Jeff Lockwood; Montana novelist Malcolm Brooks; Carlos’s wife Martha, a chef or two, and probably someone I have forgotten. It was a brilliant and exhausting week and I hope it happens again real soon– food, guns, nature dogs, art, and hilarity.

Here is Katrina’s event.

*Rhymes with “How”.

Katrina, flanked by two of her creations
Me, talking about the work
Jim and Katrina, looking like they are enjoying the talk
Katrina’s manucode, showing why, as she said (shouting) it is LOUD. Carlos bought this for us; Penelope bought us a life- sized skeletal hummingbird, which I will show when I get it.
A little science afterwards
Libby and Penelope

Why Quammen’s Spillover is worth Your Time

David Quammen’s new book Spillover, on emergent diseases; or more specifically, on emergent zoonoses, came out a few months ago to a series of middling good but somehow lukewarm reviews. I vehemently disagree, but it takes a bit of unfolding. Why do some readers find such a book fascinating while others find it dull?

First: I think any literate biologist will find it fascinating, a journalistic War and Peace with many adventurous protagonists, viruses as antagonists, mysterious hosts (you will learn why so many turn out to be bats, and why the source of the legendary Ebola— which should scare you a lot less than bird flu– probably is).

But you must understand evolution as an organizing principle of all nature to follow it. What is more, Quammen travels round the world, from northern Australia, where a disease you have likely never heard of jumps from fruit bat to horse to veterinarian, to the familiar (to his readers) rain forests of equatorial Africa, home of gorilla and chimp and bonobo, of war and bushmeat, Ebola and Marburg and AIDS. He looks at Lyme disease (not a virus by the way). He visits Bengladesh (who else bothers?) to trap flying foxes while wearing a biohazard suit, and sees a scary combination of a dense population inhabiting a semi- submerged land with poor sanitation as well as a sweet bucolic tropical nation. He goes to southern China, home of the briefly appearing SARS, which I was checked for once on a Mongolian flight from China, and where the proximity of humans, ducks, and pigs may make for the next human pandemic in the form of an unstoppable flu.

You must be patient, because  none of this has a normal narrative line. Quammen is delightfully anecdotal, but unlike in Richard Preston’s entertaining and Stephen King- terrifying The Hot Zone, he is not penning a novelistic thriller that happens to be non- fiction. His aim is to have the reader understand all the origins of the diseases he writes about, that is, their evolutionary roots. He wants you to know what a virus is, and how the main kinds of virus differ, and how they evolve without being “alive”. He wants you to know how and why some kind of outbreak is mathematically virtually inevitable. But nobody “explodes”; in fact, I thought that given his gentle reprimand to Preston over his using that verb re Ebola, the Saturday Wall Street Journal‘s giving the assignment to review the book to him was at least tactless. Preston acquitted himself as a gentleman, giving the book a mostly favorable review, but that unmentioned paragraph hung uncomfortably in the air.

Quammen ends the book by writing vividly about what a unique situation our human biosphere is, merely in its sheer mass and number of ubiquitous large mammals and their congener species. It is a subject I have only seen in science fiction. And then he closes with a description of a plague of tent caterpillars in Bozeman Montana, and what happened to them. If you read that far, and I think even non- science nerds may be captivated by then, you may finally feel your flesh creep.


Annie Davidson sent our tiny aging, nostalgic, and usually goofy Zoo group (we have known each other since, what, 1970?) a provocative essay contra the Linnaean binomial system. I think she was poking a stick in an anthill, but I am afraid it pushed a few buttons! I was provoked to editorialize…

“The author’s criticisms are valid, her conclusion unjustified. Linnaean terminology is bad but everything else is WAAY worse. I espouse and defend, here and elsewhere, a small c conservatism– what works (and with many patches it has & does); rules known, universally accepted against chaos and a million competing schemes & memes. Think how losing the Latin Mass for idealistic reasons shattered the Catholic church– I was there– but she argues for tearing down a system that, I’m sorry, represents something even more universal.

“She is a bit historically uninformed, and naive besides. For the first, she states (always beware any use of ‘obviously’!): “What is obviously needed is a naming system where the name, once assigned, does not change, even when scientific understanding of the organism’s relationships changes. We would not have to worry whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ But no SPECIFIC name can change without reassignment to another species– only generic. Nomenclatural priority. It even allows stupidity– Buteo jamaicensis for the redtail because it was first collected there, Canis niger, “BLACK dog or canid”, for the red wolf, now an endangered “taxon” because it may be a natural hybrid but still nominally black… one stable name. WE ALREADY HAVE THIS, bound about by formal rules. She goes on: ‘The irony is that there already is an informal system with that property. It is the much-maligned common name. The objection to a common name like “strawberry geranium” is that the plant is neither a strawberry nor a geranium. Why is that a problem? French toast is neither French nor toast, but the world survives.’

“Because who cares about toast, as long as you get it? Every language has many common names but there is only one formal name and even Russians (ie, those with a Cyrillic alphabet) and Chinese acknowledge it.

“The only schemes seriously offered to challenge Linnaeus are cladistic and ‘correct’ but are not NAMING systems which I expect are hardwired in our brains evolutionarily– “Rational monsters” that would take a PhD to explain. I have heard it seriously offered that an organism’s proper– what, term?– is a printout of a tree of however many pages showing its descent. I would find this an excellent adjunct of great interest- but what do you CALL it?? ‘Cladistic tree # 545,353’? Instead, we are naming animals, doing what the late Vicki Hearne metaphorically called “Adam’s task”, calling the animals by name to know something about what they are, to be able to talk about them- inadequate but a start. To name is not to know but is there any knowing without naming in a speaking species?

“Systems like the author’s, using pop names, are worse– breathtakingly ignorant of history– one popular book in favor, understanding the nature of whales, wants to “popularly” reclassify them as FISH. NO, NO, NO, NO! NO!

“Last thought: high in the Kazakh Tian Shan nearly a decade ago, a friendship formed when ornithologist Andrey Kovalenko, whose English is as awkward as my Russian, lifted his eyes above the peaks and breathed “Gypaetus barbatus!” I knew to look to the sky because I knew he wasn’t seeing a snowcock on the ground, an accentor in the bush– he was looking above the skyline to show me my first Lammergeier.”