Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book review and some bird photos from trip to Pelee Island

Pelee Island, Ontario. SpringSong Bird Festival.
While chasing a trio of blackburnian warblers one early morning last week I came face to face with this winsome creature beneath the Carolinian canopy of hackberry, oak, and shagbark hickory trees. We clapped eyes and stared at one another for a solid minute, sixty feet separating us. I may never see a grey fox again in this life, for it is one of Canada’s rarest mammals, but in that minute I sensed a kindred intelligence and awareness behind those eyes.

You may see the same thing when you look into the eyes of your beagle or palomino, but what exactly else is happening, and how much can we attribute to the lives and minds of the other animals we are crowding from this earth?

This is the subject of a fine new book by Dale Peterson, author of the acclaimed Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man. The Moral Lives of Animals takes some steps toward redefining animal nature, but I found myself selfishly interested in what the book says about human nature too and where these “natures” overlap. Early on, Peterson gives us an historic perspective on how we in the West have regarded other animals and their capacity for moral behaviour. Contrasting Medieval conceptions of animals as intelligent but under-endowed beings who can be held responsible for their actions with the Cartesian view in which animals are seen to be machine-like, mindless beings, Peterson posits a third way, an understanding that while we share some intellectual and moral qualities with animals, they are different, not only from us but from one another. A whale mind is not like a cat mind.

Quoting Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a springboard for his ideas on animal life, Peterson interprets for us the research of primatologists and other animal scientists, illuminating the lives and minds of elephants, bonobos, chimpanzees, gibbons, chickadees, hyenas, lions, lizards, frogs, wolves and many other creatures. Never technical or data-heavy, the narrative leads out into the jungle then circles back to human cultures and behaviour before making another foray into the wild. Without being shrill or sentimental, Peterson shows us again and again that we are sharing this earth with many other wondrous beings who in their own ways think, love, hate, console, avenge, grieve, and feel.

Which brings me back to my encounter with the grey fox on Pelee Island. As we looked at one another I thought I sensed something more than curiosity or fear in her. The way she moved, came to attention, and stared made me wonder what she was thinking about. A few days later I found out. Staff at the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, which hosted the SpringSong Festival, discovered her den with seven kits, about 150 feet from where I took the photo. Here is another shot of her.

Here are a few of the bird photos I took on Pelee Island during my stay as the guest birder at the SpringSong Bird Festival.

Black-throated Green Warblers were fairly common on the island

I saw more Nashville Warblers on the island than I have seen in 25 years of birding. Almost as common as yellow-rumped warblers are here.

Best looks at Blackburnian Warblers I have ever had. Must've seen ten or more in four days.

We get Black and White warblers at Cherry Lake, but they are hard to photograph

The star bird everyone wanted to see were the two male Prothonotary warblers hanging around the swamps at the south end of Pelee Island. There are only a few pairs now breeding in Canada so it was a treat to see them. Here is one last shot of a Prothonotary, dwarfed by the big tree behind it.

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