Friday, February 28, 2014

Quote Storm: Get a Life

I am going to include a few of my favorites.  As I put this post together, I realized that there were many passages I liked, but few that made sense when just a few sentences were singled out.  But here are some that work, more or less.


Rarely do I get a quote from the very first page of a book:

Literally radiant.  But not giving off light as saints are shown with a halo.  He radiates unseen danger to others from a destructive substance that has been directed to counter what was destroying him.  Had him by the throat.  Cancer of the thyroid gland.


His work is scientific, in collaboration with the greatest scientist of all, nature, who has the formula for everything, whether discovered or still a mystery to research by its self-styled highest creation.


Surely there is no purposelessness the music you love cannot deny by the act of your listening.


This passage actually goes on for far longer and makes the entire book worth it, in my opinion:

The Okavango delta in co-existence with a desert is a system of elements contained, maintained-by the phenomenon itself, unbelievably, inconceivably.  ... Where to begin understanding what we've only got a computerspeak label for, ecosystem?  Where to decide it begins.


Visting a natural area with nesting endangered eagles:

Lyndsay was the one who noticed the leafy twigs, as the leaflet had described, on the mess of the nest on the right--from the viewer's not the bird's point of view.  The wings of night against sun-paled sky continued to plane and dip; and then there was a descent, the transforming mastery that was the eagle's was gone, collapsed in a bird.  

Thursday, February 27, 2014

(Resumption) Get a Life

I have not forgotten about you, blog.  But as the weird blend of birthday (my husband) and sympathy (the loss of my grandfather) cards on my mantel attests - life has been a really mixed bag lately, and I've been living mostly offline.

It doesn't feel right to just pick up where I left off, but with a blog, what else is there to do?

I actually finished a book - Get a Life, by Nadine Gordimer - two days before I found out about my grandfather.  I had a whole post in my mind at the time, but didn't write it, and now it seems like I read the book a year ago instead of a week ago.

But I have to get something out on it, I'm already a book behind in reviews.

Gordimer is a Nobel-prize winning South African more known for her books focused on class and race, than on health and family drama.  This is my first book by her, but I knew going in that she can be ... difficult.   But at least its only 187 pages, right?  Nope.  This is easily one of the toughest books I've tackled.

There are brilliant passages contemplating illness, death, conservation (her description of the Okavango delta late in the book is fantastic), parent/child relationships, and husband/wife relationships.  Unfortunately, they usually are couched in wild sentence structures and possibly even experimental grammar.  There are sentences that just don't read properly in English as I know it.

Books inevitably get mixed up in real life, when you're me, at least.  They can put you in a mood.  (The Bell Jar, anyone?)  This one left me feeling pretty ambivalent about life.  And then life itself left me feeling pretty ambivalent about life.          

As you'll soon see, bookwise, I changed direction. I have been resorting to light, fun lit - no more heavy hitters that question the meaning of existence for a while.  Sometimes reading for entertainment and escapism is just the ticket.

   Final call:
It's worth the slog, but I'm not sure why a writer of her skill would intentionally obscure her work. Get ready to commit some time and to question your understanding of the English language.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Labor Day

No, I'm not losing my mind, I know it's February.  I took a break from some of the heavier reading on my plate and picked up Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard.  You may have seen the million commercials for the movie that's based on the book.

This is a really quick read.  Most of the "real time" in the book covers six days around Labor Day, sometime in the 1980s.  There's also plenty of flashbacks and at the end, flashes forward. Since I've seen so many of the movie commercials, in my head, I could only picture Kate Winslet as Adele.  Which is fine, she seems like a good fit.    


A few observations - the story seems to focus on sex and body parts an awful lot.  Then I realized, yes, the narrator is 13-year old Henry. Duh.  I've never been a 13-year old boy, but as far as I can tell, Maynard does a pretty good job speaking in one's voice. The mother-son relationship is realistic, too.  I imagine I would feel responsible for her happiness, too.  

SPOILER ALERT:  I figured the story would end in a bloodbath of some sort or another.  I was pretty sure Frank would die tragically, or that even worse, Adele would.  Or, that Henry would more directly sell Frank out.  That Maynard didn't take those routes, I think those are good things.  The ending is as happy as it could realistically be.

As a child of the 80s, the pop culture references made me smile.  Actors dressed in raisin outfits singing on TV.  Minivans with sliding doors being a new thing.  Very nostalgic.      

Some of the plotting seems a little too pat - the convict charms the one family in town with an emotionally fragile Mom who is home all the time, a Dad that lives elsewhere with his new family, and a house at the very end of a street surrounded by woods and not very visible from the neighbors?  Incredible luck, that.

But Maynard is very good at dialogue.  Not too many words, and distinct style.  You get a real sense of Adele's character from how she speaks.   

  Final call:  

Labor Day is a pretty classic coming-of-age story, and there's definitely a lot worse fiction out there you could be sticking your nose into.  Just don't expect instant gratification for the leads; they wait and wait for their resolution.   


Costa Rica continued ...

After our days in and around San Jose, the group headed to the northeast.  Over the rim of mountains, and out into the coastal plain that faces the Caribbean sea.  Temperatures and humidity rose steadily, and the culture became more heavily influenced by the Caribbean, and Jamaica in particular.  On the way, we stopped for a break at a butterfly garden.

The old sign, to me, was prettier than the new one out front.  A few birds had infiltrated the butterfly enclosure, including this rufous-tailed hummingbird.  Rufous-taileds are one of the most common and widespread hummingbirds in Costa Rica.  We saw them everywhere.  I like how they rock the reddish bill.

Butterflies of all types were also everywhere, but it was surprisingly hard to get decent pictures.  They moved so much!

After the rest stop, we had another hour or so of driving through banana country.  Our guide explained how the fruit is grown and harvested.  When bunches are picked, they are placed on hanging conveyors that run throughout the fields so workers never have to carry them too far.  In this case, the conveyor system runs under the road for vehicles.

In the field, bags are placed around the ripening bunches for protection.  Each bunch has a colored tie at the bottom.  The color of the tie indicates when they will ripen, and helps determine when to ship which bananas to which countries - the idea is time their arrival before they fully ripen.

Bananas were just one of many crops we saw as we drove around the northern two-thirds of the country - mangoes, papayas, guavas, pineapples, sugarcane, a few oranges, and even farms that grow fern foliage for flower arrangements.

One last treat - although the picture is cruddy.  As we cut from the main road, we passed a pile of old banana plants where a small group of capuchin monkeys were feasting.  

As a Pennsylvanian, I'm used to seeing deer out and about, but monkeys are something else altogether!  We would see many more this trip - and several different kinds, too - but these were the first so they get a special shout out here.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

One year ago, today ...

We were most decidedly NOT covered in a foot and a half of snow, wondering when it was going to stop.  We were near the end of a mild winter, and, even better, on a plane headed for San Jose, Costa Rica.

We went to Costa Rica with a tour company called Caravan, which offers a 10-day, 9-night tour of the country with time spent in four different parts of the country.

We started with two nights in San Jose, in a nice suburb known as Escazu.  Our hotel was across the street from a mall.  Very "American" feel to the development.  One thing that was quite different for me, though - urban parakeets.  Or, well, parakeets at all!  As night fell, the area around our hotel attracted thousands of crimson-fronted parakeets.  They roost in the palm trees, but first spend an hour or two clowning around and being very very noisy.  

A raised walkway between the hotel and the mall created  a really nice opportunity to be "in the trees" with the parakeets.  The crimson front seems flashy until you see the birds perfectly camouflaged  in these trees with red fruits.

Another thing about San Jose - it's in a high mountain valley ringed with more-or-less active volcanoes.  The second day included a trip to the top of nearby Poas volcano.  Our guide told us we'd have about a 30% chance of seeing the crater because the top is usually shrouded in clouds.   

We got lucky - all clear at the top.  I guess I've been around active volcanoes here in the US (Yellowstone, technically, and Mt. St. Helens, which WAS cloudy when we visited, and Mt. Ranier), but there was just something about looking right down the mouth of this one.  

Because of the elevations, and the way the winds were blowing, the temp and humidity were what we would call perfect fall weather.  At Poas, and in San Jose.  On the way down, we stopped at an overlook that showed the central valley beautifully.

One last stop on our way back to hotel, to learn about coffee, one of Costa Rica's most valuable crops, and one that loves to grow on volcanic soil.  We spent a few hours at Britt Coffee Roasters.  It isn't an actual plantation, but instead where Britt roasts beans grown from all over the nation.  They have a wacky but educational presentation on all things coffee.

Here are coffee beans before and after the roasting process.  Britt's gift shop is fantastic.  I came out of there with such a caffeine rush, since you could try all of their coffee blends along with chocolate-covered espresso beans.  

With these adventures, our group left the San Jose area, and headed for the tropical lowlands of the northeastern part of the country - which I will very likely write about tomorrow!  

Quote Storm: Fingersmith

I reread my review of Fingersmith and realized that I made the book sound just super-dreary.  Which it is.  But, there is a surprising amount of humor in Sue's frank descriptions of her thieving lifestyle, early in the book.  I'm including a few examples of that here, along with a few other quotes that caught my eye.  

And another thing about Waters - you don't realize just how complicated her sentence structure can get until you attempt to correctly type out a paragraph or two!


Sue, the young pickpocket, talking about reading and writing:

I believe I learned my alphabet, like that: not by putting letters down, but by taking them out (removing identifying monograms from stolen goods).  I know I learned the look of my own name, from handkerchiefs that came, marked Susan.  As for regular reading, we never troubled with it.  Mrs. Sucksby could do it, if she had to; Mr. Ibbs could read, and even write; but, for the rest of us, it was an idea - well, I should say, like speaking Hebrew or throwing somersaults: you could see the use of it, for Jews and tumblers; but while it was their lay, why make it yours?


Training Sue to act as a lady's maid for their scheme:

'Why don't she wear the kind of stays that fasten at the front, like a regular girl?' said Dainty, watching.  

'Because then,' said Gentleman, 'she shouldn't need a maid. And if she didn't need a maid, she shouldn't know she was a lady. Hey?' He winked.


On husbands:

She hummed along until her eyes grew damp, and then the hum got broken.  Her husband had been a sailor, and been lost at sea. - Lost to her, I mean.  He lived in the Bermudas.


On servants and their masters:

I should never have put her down as the motherly sort, myself; but servants grow sentimental over the swells they work for, like dogs grow fond of bullies.You take my word for it.


Sue, justifying her part in scamming Miss Lilly (Maud), which is all the more delicious as Maud is actually double-crossing Sue:

And then, say I gave it all up - how would that save Maud? Say I went home: Gentleman would go on and marry her, and lock her up anyway.  Or, say I peached him up. He would be sent from Briar, Mr. Lilly would keep her all the closer - she might as well be put in a madhouse, then. Either way, I didn't say much to her chances.

But her chances had all been dealt to her, years before. She was like a twig on a rushing river. She was like milk - too pale, too pure, too simple. She was made to be spoiled.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Honor among thieves ...

Last night, I finished Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.  Unlike my other year-to-date books, I have read this author before.  So, I knew what to expect, more or less.  

If you know anything of Waters, you have probably heard her described as Dickens with lesbians.  And thieves, and shysters, and all manner of unsavory characters. In fact, fingersmith is an antiquated term for thief or pickpocket.   

If you've read her books before, you also know she can write the saddest stories.  Affinity may qualify as the very saddest book I have ever read.  Waters has a penchant for writing about very vulnerable women being made miserable, and this book is no exception.  The two main female protagonists are victimized in both the same and different ways throughout.  

The first two-thirds of the book are a work of art.  So much tension.  One girl (with help) sets out to scam the other in a particularly horrible way.  But, the tables are reversed and the scammee turns out to be the scammer.  Oh, and the two manage to fall in love while plotting each other's downfall.  

The first third describes the scam, over a period of months, from Sue's viewpoint.  The second third describes it from Maud's.  It is incredibly eerie to read the same sequence of events from differing viewpoints, and see how Sue's perception is both more and less accurate than Maud's, though Maud of course knows more about the true motivation behind the scenes.  

These sections deserve five out of five stars.  It's after Maud is taken, as a prisoner more or less, to Sue's old home that the book falls flat to me.  The villainy, and the absurd chain of events that inspire it, is taken to lengths that become unbelievable.  The desperation and ill treatment of both Maud and Sue goes on for too long and in too much detail with too little purpose (unless Waters' purpose is to expose the horrors of Victorian insane asylums, in which case you should just read Affinity and be done with it), the momentum drags.  

The secondary characters never show depth. Maud's uncle is a very evil caricature.  Richard might be fascinating, but we never find out.  The various young boys exist just to perform necessary functions in the plot (Sue has to get out of the madhouse somehow).  

I am actually surprised there's a vaguely happy ending, but there's not enough light at the end of the tunnel to make you feel better about the trip because, while Sue and Maud reunite, we only see them happy for about one page.  For pete's sake, we follow Sue wandering around Briar looking for Maud for longer than we see their reconciliation.   

This book could very fairly be qualified as a horror story - one of the most horrific kinds, one that might easily have happened.  Not all of it, in its entirety, but the pieces: how very very powerless women could be in Victorian England, how limited personal freedom could be, and how little recourse of any sort was available.  How easy it was to be declared mad.  How few options the poor had.  All of the terrible tricks and cheats that people pulled.

  Final call: 

(and maybe a half)

Read this one and shiver, but be prepared to lose the magic toward the end.    


Snow day, again

This is the third day this month that I have been home from work due to inclement weather.  Based on forecasts, this storm is going to be the worst of the season.  So far, it's living up to its promise!   We have at least a foot on the ground.

This morning, very heavy snow was coming down.  Stop action, and the moving scene.  

 About 10:00, the snow switched over to sleet, and now to rain.  I would say the switch saved us a big headache in extra snow accumulation.  Although it's making all that snow heavier and heavier to shovel and the cars are still both entombed!  And, we may catch another blast of snow as the tail end of the storm gets us this evening.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Quote Storm: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell

I have so many for this book (and if you haven't read it already, you'll see how very unique her style is!)


"My dear Lascelles," cried Drawlight, "what nonsense you talk! Upon my word, there is nothing in the world so easy to explain as failure - it is, after all, what every body does all the time."


It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry.  Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.


A footnote explaining why Jonathan Strange's father did not keep the child from his mother's people:

Upon the contrary Laurence Strange congratulated himself on avoiding paying for the boy's food and clothes for months at a time.  So may a love of money make an intelligent man small-minded and ridiculous. 


About Lady Pole and her butler, Stephen, both suffering under a fairy enchantment: 

But perhaps it was not so curious.  The different styles of life of a lady and a butler tend to obscure any similarities in their situations.  A butler has his work and must do it.  Unlike Lady Pole, Stephen was not suffered to sit idly by the window, hour after hour, without speaking. Symptoms that were raised to the dignity of an illness in Lady Pole were dismissed as mere low spirits in Stephen.


Strange's vision of the army's future, on the eve of the carnage of Waterloo:

Men and horses began to disappear, few by few at first, and then more quickly - hundreds, thousands of them vanishing from sight. Great gaps appeared among the close-packed soldiers. A little further to the east, an entire regiment was gone, leaving a hole the size of Hanover-square.  Where, moments before, all had been life, conversation and activity, there was now nothing but the rain and the twilight and the waiving stalks of rye. 


It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be in raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him.  Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy's song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.


On cats:

For, though the room was silent, the silence of half a hundred cats is a peculiar thing, like fifty individual silences all piled one on top of another.

"Such nonsense!" declared Dr. Greysteel. "Whoever heard of cats doing anything useful!"


Saturday, February 8, 2014

The joy of modern means of communication

We already had plans to go check out the river this afternoon, but right about 1:30 I saw that someone had emailed PA Birds about a Glaucous Gull visible from the John Wright boat launch in Wrightsville.  The hunt was on!

Now, I have been down to the river multiple times in the last week or so, and there's usually hundreds if not thousands of gulls present, so I figured I would have to be very lucky to be able to pick out the single slightly different one.  

I was right - we scanned the river and saw many many Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls, and about a dozen Greater Black-Backed.  But no Glaucous.  Another birder arrived, she had seen the email, too.  She also told us that she recognized the cars of the people who first reported the bird.  They had to be in a nearby restaurant, having lunch.  We waited a while for them to emerge, to no avail, so decided to head down to the next boat launch to the south.  

We were just wrapping up there when I got a phone call.  The lunching birders had re-emerged and had found the Glaucous Gull again.  Turns out the lady who we had met told the lunching birders about us, and one of them recognized my name and still had my phone number from a few years ago, when I met her through some peregrine falcon sightings I made in York city.  Whew!

We hopped back up to John Wright and were able to get distant but nice looks.  The Glaucous was hanging out on some rocks with a few Greater Black-Backed Gulls.  Greater Black-Backed Gulls are the largest gulls in the world, and as you can see, the Glaucous is very nearly as large as they are.  Its size alone made it pretty obviously different from the other non-black-backed gulls on the river.  This one is a juvenile, an adult would have a light gray mantle and would lack any black in the wings.

Some good luck and a nice set of coincidences turns out to net me one more life bird for 2014!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mr. Norrell is strange, and finished!

One of the things I like to do when I have finished a book, especially if it's one I have mixed emotions about, is look at reviews on Amazon and Good Reads and see what other people think of it.

While I did this for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one thing struck me.  I've never seen an author compared to so many other wildly different authors:  Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Helprin, J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, China Mieville, and trust me, I'm just getting started.  I think this happens because Clarke is a total original who quietly echoes many literary traditions.  

Another thing that made sense is that the book can be interpreted, at least in part, as a look at the moral implications of quickly evolving technology, with magic standing in for technology.  At one point, Clarke even brings up real historical advances, and the Luddites as a group.

Published in May 1812 by Messrs. Walker and Knight, Sweetings Alley, Royal Exchange
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired

Another interesting take is that the man with the thistledown hair, who is a powerful fairy, also operates in many ways like a vampire.  Cheating life from people through enchantment.  Strange even brings up vampires at one point, although in no relation to fairies. This is a very clever book that way, directly referencing its themes every so often.

But there is no getting around the fact that this book is really, really not for everyone.  Even if it's right up your alley, you have to be in the mood for it.  It tested my patience, despite the writing being truly outstanding.  For example, I'm still not sure that we needed hundreds of pages of Strange & Wellington, for all the more character development that occurred.

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler, c1838
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired

The characters - these characters are complex and often you don't really like them much, even the 'good' ones.  The bad ones don't always get what's coming to them.  You want to punch Strange in the head for being so oblivious for 500 pages, and Norrell for being so small-minded for 700.  Women and the poor are not treated nicely here, by humans or fairies, and that doesn't change much by the end.  And, on page 782, you're still not sure what the Raven King is all about and why he's restoring magic to England.  Although his appearances at the end are handled nicely.  It's rumored that Clarke is writing a sequel, I can see why.

I have also seen that the film rights for the book were sold a while ago, and a BBC series is underway, too.  I can't wait for the BBC edition, this is prime material for them.

  Final call:

Please read, but proceed with caution and an abundance of patience!    

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Birding the Icepocalypse

The office where I work rarely closes for weather.  But yesterday they did, so I took advantage and scoped out the river again.  While everyone else was dealing with Icepocalypse, I was the lone birder.

I took care to stay out from under the trees.  Plenty of branches had already come down and more were doing so as I watched.  We had anywhere from a quarter to a half inch of ice that fell on trees already covered with snow.  

 But, yes, the birds.  A fellow birder in town posted what she had seen the day before at 3:00 in the afternoon.  Then, the storm lasted most of the night and next morning.  I saw virtually the same birds in the same numbers as she did; I assume the weather kept them grounded.

This is a red-necked grebe, one of a pair that have stayed in the area for a few days now.  I don't think I've seen this species in this county until now.

 Among the ducks, scaup (about 30) and goldeneye (about 50) were the most common.  Bufflehead and canvasbacks were around in smaller numbers.  Here's a group of scaup, with the Columbia River Park as a backdrop.

As I watched the goldeneye (who unfortunately were always as far from shore as possible), I noticed many of them were gyrating.  I knew goldeneye perform courting dances that would break lesser ducks' backs, but I didn't think I'd see them in action.

This isn't high quality footage, but good enough for being taken at 100X digital zoom, with only my camera resting on my scope, which was on a tripod, for stabilization.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mr. Norrell is strange ...

For the second book in my 2014 Man Booker Challenge, I picked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  This is a 700 page beast, and I wanted to tackle it early in the year.

I'm a little over half-way through.  It's full of British wit and charm..  I can see why some draw parallels to Harry Potter, although its ultimately very far from Rowling's series. 

Three Men in a Boat  is a classic of British humor.  Would it have been as delightful if it were 700 pages, instead of 170?  No, I'm afraid even that book might wear thin.  So one of my issues is that the comedy often wears out before the scene moves on.  

The other is related to the particulars of some events.  It's unsettling to read of decidedly uncharming  to downright frightening activities in a manner that implies there is charm or wit or humor in the situations.  For example, the story of the seventeen dead Neapolitans is chilling.  A gentleman magician won't kill with magic, but has no problem resurrecting seventeen dead men, using them shamelessly, then messing about with them for weeks until they meet a hellish end (again).  Throughout the book there is this strange feeling that you are expected to laugh at things that just aren't funny, it must be intentional.     

Some other thoughts.  Is there a plot to this book?  Kind of.  There's forward motion that gets tangled in literally hundreds of digressions.  Many of which are complete stories in their own.  Where will it go?  Sometimes I glimpse the shape of what I hope is the big picture.  I don't necessarily need much of a plot to enjoy a book, but this one really does lurch along.  If the Raven King chapters don't deliver, then I will wonder what the journey was for.

There's also an absolute overload of imagination.  Delightfully creepy descriptions of eerie magic, mad fairies, etc.  A different author probably would have milked four or five or fifteen books out of this much content.  

But, I'm wondering if Clarke's imagination crosses itself up at times.  Jonathan Strange sends a message to a military officer using a very small rainstorm to spell patterns in the dry dust, and a few chapters later can't figure out how to put out a house fire without resorting to awkward machinations.  He tries to make creatures out of water, but unfortunately, we hear that water is the fussiest of the elements and doesn't hold its shape well when magic is used.  Except, I guess, when Mr. Norrell blockaded French ports for at least a week with ships made out of ... water.  

In fact, the entire presentation of how magic was used in the Napoleonic Wars doesn't sit right with me, but I've gone on too long here as it is.  Back to finishing off this book!   


Monday, February 3, 2014

It's snowing ... geese

It's February and snow geese are collecting in large groups in the mid-Atlantic, at staging areas where hundreds and thousands of geese collect and coordinate their migration further northward. 

Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge had somewhere between 1500-2000 snow geese this last weekend.  They were divided into two smaller groups, and one of these was on the ice right beside the wildlife drive.    

 A healthy number of Canadas were around, too, of course.  Here are some fresh tracks.

Some other excitement was at Steel Pier in Atlantic City.  Large rafts of ducks were present just off-shore.  Hundreds upon hundreds of what were probably black scoters and long-tailed ducks.  

Closer in to shore, I found a common loon, and a female long-tailed duck.

And on the pier itself, more tracks.  Although nowhere near as fresh as the goose tracks at Forsythe.   

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shore birding and bunting

Two or three years ago, we went on a field trip with the local bird club to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park in New Jersey.  It was a fantastic trip, and it introduced me to a group of birds I was not at all familiar with.  I haven't been back to check out the sea ducks and other various wintering coastal birds, until this weekend.  I'll have a post or two on those later, but first, a detour.  

Word on the internet was that an very rare Smith's Longspur had been sighted at Stone Harbor Point, to the north of Cape May.  The most recent news was that it hadn't been found in a day or so, so our hopes weren't set on seeing it.  But it was also supposed to be a good place to find these guys:

Snow buntings aren't shore birds per se, but they can be found in the dunes.  For not being a particularly rare bird in the winter, this is my first encounter with them.  So, that was exciting, finding life bird #1 for the day.  There was flock of about a dozen, scurrying back and forth through the grassy dunes.

This group was very tolerant.  We were within 10 feet or so of some.  A few were messing in and around an old washed up tire.  Later, one jumped up and posed for us.  

Birders drifted in and out while we were walking around Stone Harbor Point.  One told us how to find a pair of king eider hens hanging out with some scaup two bridges over.  King eiders are unusual in New Jersey, but nobody told these two.  They have been in the area since some time in December.

These two were easy to find, but hard to actually observe.  The only clear views were distant ones, so a documentation-quality shot will have to do.  The eider are the two brownish birds at the back left.  An unexpected life bird #2 for the day!  

Quote Storm: Fire from Heaven

I intended to post some of my favorite quotes from the Man Booker Challenge books I read.  And I'm already behind, so here goes.

Fire from Heaven, by Mary Renault

Alexander and a tutor discussing the proto-Olympic Games:

     "No. When I went to watch, I thought nothing would be so wonderful. But we stayed on after, and I met the athletes; and I saw how it really is.  I can beat the boys here, because we're all training to be men. But these boys are just boy athletes. Often they're finished before they're men; and if not, even for the men, the Games is all their life.  Like being a woman is for women."
    Epikrates nodded. "It came about almost within my lifetime. People who have earned no pride in themselves are content to be proud of their cities through other men. The end will be that the city has nothing left for pride, except the dead, who were proud less easily."

Hercules, to young Alexander in a vision:

By laying myself on the pyre I became divine.  I have wrestled Thanatos (death) knee to knee, and I know how death is vanquished.  Man's immortality is not to live forever; for that wish is born of fear. Each moment free from fear makes a man immortal.

Alexander and Hephaistion, at a turning point in their relationship:

Alexander rested from his thoughts in a waking sleep. Hephaistion watched him, with the steadfast eyes and tender patience of the leopard crouched by the pool, its hunger comforted by the sound of light distant footfalls, straying down the forest track.

At the assassination of Philip, Alexander's father, by the bodyguard Pausanias:

Philip slid stiffly down, smiled, and began to speak.  Pausanias' left hand took his arm in a tightening drip.  Their looks met.  Pausanias brought out his right hand from his cloak, so swiftly that Philip never saw the dagger, except in Pausanias' eyes.

There are actually quite a few more, but they need more background to set up than I care to include here!