This Thing Called Courage

Friday, July 31, 2009

Maybe They're Irish Bears?

Black bears typically have two cubs; rarely, one or three.
In 2007, in northern New Hampshire, a black bear sow gave birth to five healthy young.
There were two or three reports of sows with as many as four cubs, but five was, and is, extraordinary.
I learnt of them shortly after they emerged from their den and set myself the goal of photographing all five cubs with their mum - no matter how much time and effort was involved.
I knew the trail they followed on a fairly regular basis, usually shortly before dark.
After spending nearly four hours a day, seven days a week, for six weeks, I had that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and photographed them.
I used the equivalent of a very fast film speed on my digital camera. (Bottom pic)
I stayed in touch with other people who saw the bears during the summer and into the fall hunting season.
All six bears continued to thrive.
As time for hibernation approached, I found still more folks who had seen them, and everything remained OK.
I stayed away from the bears as I was concerned that they might become habituated to me, or to people in general, as approachable friends.
This could be dangerous for both man and animal.
After Halloween I received no further reports and could only hope the bears survived until they hibernated.

This spring, before the snow disappeared, all six bears came out of their den and wandered the same familiar territory they trekked in the spring of 2007.
I saw them before mid-April and dreamed nightly of taking another family portrait, an improbable second once-in-a-lifetime photograph. (top pic)

On April 25, 2008 I achieved my dream.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Goat Cheese Making in Vermont

SANDGATE, Vt. - It’s early afternoon and a group of us - 15 in all - have set out for a hike in the woods. We climb steadily along a path shaded by birches and poplars. The air is warm and juniper-scented. Though we’ve just had lunch, some of us wander off to munch a juicy leaf, nosh a bit of bark, and generally gourmandize the scenery. We don’t think anything of this. Most of us are goats.

The hillside we ramble is the property of novelist Brad Kessler (“Lick Creek,’’ “Birds in Fall’’), 46, and his wife, photographer Dona Ann McAdams, 55, native New Yorkers who left their urban digs for an 1800 farmhouse and 75 acres in southwestern Vermont. They continue to ply their respective crafts, but as Kessler explains in a new book, it’s the twin routines of tending 11 Nubian dairy goats and making cheese from the milk that frames their schedules. “Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, a Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese’’ is Kessler’s extended meditation on how the couple’s encounter with pastoralism has offered them a fresh perspective on life and work.

There’s a sense of calm and order here that feels almost monastic (in fact, there’s a Carthusian charterhouse nearby). The dairying is a labor of love, not a real business.

Kessler sees the little herd of goats as a connection to a remote, collective human past. “When you live with animals who directly feed you,’’ he says, “you begin to feel what humans felt for millennia: an elemental connection to the land, a deep sense of place, a connection to a larger cosmology. That’s the way we developed as humans, as one animal among others.’’

Kessler and McAdams bought the farmhouse in 1998 but didn’t live there full time until the goats arrived six years later. That served as an excuse to make a permanent break with the city.

“Once the does kidded and were lactating, we made our first batch of cheese,’’ Kessler says. These were faiselles, smallish tapered cylinders of moist, unsalted curds.

The day we visit, a batch is draining over the kitchen’s old porcelain double sink. We watch as Kessler deftly removes three cheeses from their perforated cups, sets them on a wooden board, rolls two in fresh herbs, the third in a light coating of cracked black pepper. The process for making faiselles, or chevre, which is salted and a bit drier, is remarkably simple once you have the milk (raw is best). The results are spectacular: sweetly lactic and delicately delicious in a way you don’t expect.

During a visit to a cheese-making family in the French Pyrenees, Kessler also learned to use goat milk to make a firm, ripened, mountain-type cheese called tomme. Ripened cheeses call for considerably more skill and time. The couple makes six each week, two at a time, from Memorial Day, when the does are newly in milk, to Columbus Day, when the moms are dried off to give them a rest.

“Each tomme contains some morning and some evening milk - about 10 gallons in all,’’ Kessler explains, “though some say the best tommes are made from a single milking.’’ Once molded, pressed, repeatedly turned, and salted (he describes the process in “Goat Song’’), new wheels are set on unfinished board shelving in a screened-off corner of the fieldstone cellar. Over several months they’ll put up a rind and begin to take on the hue of tawny port. At four months, the tommes are tasty; at a year they’re redolent with aromas of fresh-cut hay and complex, farmy notes reminiscent of reserve gruyere.

Cheeses made from unpasteurized milk can’t be sold in the United States until they’ve been aged for 60 days, so the couple’s fresh chevres are consumed at home. Their tommes, however, were a big hit in New York at the restaurant Artisanal, which began buying and serving them in 2007. Then the couple moved to Italy when Kessler received the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Rome Prize for his writing, and the relationship with Artisanal ended. Today, most of the tomme production is used as barter with Clear Brook Farm in Shaftsbury, where the cheese is for sale with the farm’s organic produce. “We’ve got a lot of credits,’’ says Kessler, a trace of ruefulness in his voice. He and McAdams grow much of their own food on the land.

Back on the trail, which Kessler refers to as “the salad bar,’’ we wonder whether all that tasty browse doesn’t harbor some danger for the goats. He calls the girls by name and knows all their quirks. “You read that things like acorns or wilted cherry leaves may be bad for them, but the goats seem pretty picky. And, you know, it’s all that exotic browse that informs the cheese.’’

Stephen Meuse can be reached at

Urban Foragers

(This is from World Environmental News, via Reuters)

CHICAGO - Armed with pruning shears and a paper bag, Nance Klehm walks along a Chicago sidewalk, pointing out plants and weeds that can make a tasty salad or stir-fry.

She snips stalks from a weed with downy leaves and white powder commonly called goosefoot or lamb's quarters.

"I collect a lot of this," said Klehm, 43. "It's indistinguishable from spinach when you cook it. I never, never grow spinach or other greens except kale. Everything else I forage."

Klehm is among a small group of urban foragers across the United States who collect weeds and plants from city streets and gardens to use in meals and medicines. Some are survivalists while others are environmentalists or even gourmands seeking new flavors for cooking.

Klehm leads small groups of about 20 people a few times a year on urban forages in Chicago. In New York, Steve Brill's walks in Central Park attract 50 or more people every weekend.

"People have a lot of different reasons," said Brill, who wrote a book on edible plants and posts information on foraging at

"They're freegans, vegans, foodies, environmentalists," he said. "It's definitely more middle class than working class."


Urban foraging in the United States is more a choice than a necessity. Most foragers see both the health and environmental benefits to eating a more natural diet.

"I do this to slow down, to not follow the grid, to skip out of technoconsumerism. I do this to realize that the health of my body is connected to the health of the land," said Klehm, who has a website at

She also teaches groups how to compost food and cooks with solar ovens.

Stacy Peterson went on Klehm's recent forage because she was curious and she loves urban gardening.

"There's a big movement right now toward urban farming and slow food," said Peterson, a graphic artist.

"I've been trying to eat more local, organic and unprocessed foods. I'm learning how to eat healthier and the urban forage walk taught me about the edible plants and weeds growing wild in my community."

But urban foraging isn't without risks. Klehm describes several plants as mild laxatives, while others are psychotropic, or even poisonous.

There are also environmental concerns in the city, such as lead and pollutants in the soil.

Brill advises people not to forage within 50 feet of major roads because that is where heavy metals tend to accumulate.

But urban foragers are quick to point out that food bought at the grocery store may not be without herbicides and pesticides.

"Adjacent to where I was doing a tour was a peach orchid. They came with trucks with nozzles larger than I am tall and clouds of chemicals went onto these peaches," Brill said.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

West Bank Settler Violence and the Path: Once Againt he Media Gets it Wrong

Tom Dispatch

posted 2009-06-25 10:28:54

Tomgram: Ira Chernus, West Bank Settler Violence and the Path to Peace

The American media in its 24/7 half-life tends to turn the surprises of history, large and small, into flood-tide events. They sweep over us, offering a kind of news satiation that leads quickly enough to forgetfulness -- as the media moves on. And then the subjects of the news are left to struggle, once again little attended to, with whatever everyday crisis may be at hand. Right now, Iran, of course, is that flood: both the news of a remarkable outpouring of dissatisfaction and dismay, youthful and otherwise, with the recent fraudulent election -- not the first time, by the way, that there have been fraud charges in an Iranian election, just not on such a grotesque scale -- as well as the bravery and determination of unarmed protestors in the face of angry, armed repression. And then, of course, there are all sorts of American fantasies about what's happening.

It's a wonderful, even a thrilling thing, when we're reminded that history surprises, that we human beings are less than predictable and sometimes act in concert and so much better, so much more movingly, than we have any right to expect. One can only hope for further surprises against the force of a well-armed state. While we're at it, however, we Americans should remind ourselves that we are not the good guys in this story, that it was American meddling that set in motion the whole grim train of events leading to this moment more than half a century ago.

In the meantime, in news terms, the rest of the world is largely obliterated. Israelis, Palestinians? Gone. That was another moment, another flood of news. Been there, done that. You know, Obama's speech in Cairo and all that (on which, by the way, David Bromwich has an interesting and optimistic take over at the New York Review of Books). And yet in that region, the everyday worst of things simply goes on being terrible. Gaza strangles. The West Bank settlements slowly expand. The Israeli government moves further to the right. And Hamas digs in.

On the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I undoubtedly qualify as a pessimist. I see little in the direction Israel has taken -- and Israel is the strong one in the "peace process," the party with at least the theoretical capacity to give something -- that might lead somewhere close to something resembling peace. Yet, here, too, I'm ready for the surprises of history. I welcome them whether in Iran, Israel, or the Gaza Strip. And I like it when someone like that all-around canny guy and TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus sees glimmers of hope for something new in the otherwise horrific tangle of bitterness, retribution, and hopelessness that the Israelis and Palestinians now represent. Tom

Palestinian Violence Overstated, Jewish Violence Understated

Time to Change the Story
By Ira Chernus

The Israel Project hired pollster Stanley Greenberg to test American opinion on the Middle East conflict -- and got a big surprise. In September 2008, 69% of Americans called themselves pro-Israel. Now, it's only 49%. In September, the same 69% wanted the U.S. to side with Israel; now, only 44%.

How to explain this dramatic shift? Greenberg himself suggested the answer years ago when he pointed out that, in politics, "a narrative is the key to everything." Last year the old narrative about the Middle East conflict was still dominant: Israel is an innocent victim, doing only what it must do to defend itself against the Palestinians. Today, that narrative is beginning to lose its grip on Americans.

Well, to be more precise, the first part of the old narrative is eroding. Nearly half the American public seems unsure that Israel is still the good guy in the Middle East showdown. But the popular image of the Palestinians as the violent bad guy is apparently as potent as ever. The number of Americans who say they support Palestine remains unchanged from last September, a mere 7%. And only 5% want the U.S. government to take such a position.

Those numbers reflect the narrative that President Obama recited in Cairo on June 4th. He chided the Israelis for a few things they are doing wrong -- like expanding settlements and blockading Gaza. To the other side, though, his message was far blunter: "Palestinians must abandon violence." Of Israeli violence he said not a word.

The president's speech implicitly sanctioned the most up-to-date tale that dominates the American mass media and public opinion today: The Israelis ought to be reined in a bit, but it's hard to criticize them too much because, hey, what would you do if you had suicide bombers and rockets coming at you all the time?

That view is a political winner here. In the latest Pew poll, 62% of Americans say Obama is striking the right balance between Israel and Palestine; of those who disagree, three-quarters want to see him tougher on the Palestinians, not the Israelis. A Rasmussen poll finds even stronger support for a pro-Israel tilt.

There are, however, two things wrong with his narrative. First, though it's somewhat less one-sided than the story that prevailed during the George W. Bush years, it is far from impartial, which means the U.S. still cannot act as an even-handed broker for peace in the region. Since no one else is available to play that role, it's hard to see how, under the present circumstances, any version of a peace process can move forward.

The second problem is that the popular narrative just doesn't happen to match the facts. In reality, unjustified violence is initiated on both sides -- and if anyone insists on keeping score, Israel's violence, official and unofficial, outweighs the violence coming from the Palestinians.

Coming to Grips with Jewish Settler Violence

Israeli violence is often overlooked here because so much of it is done by official order of the state. Americans are quick to side with the man who wears the badge. Even when he lets loose the kind of violence that recently devastated parts of the Gaza Strip, the reigning assumption is that his gun is a force for law and order.

But what about the kind of violence Palestinians are so often accused of, the unauthorized civilian-on-civilian kind -- what the experts term "non-state-actor violence" and the rest of us simply call "terrorism"? Though you may not know this, much of it these days is done by Israeli Jews.

"Palestinian civilians bear brunt of settler violence," Agence France-Presse recently reported: "Nestled amid rolling hills and with an eagle eye's view to the Mediterranean coast, Nahla Ahmed's house has all the elements of Eden... if it weren't for the Molotov cocktail-throwing neighbours. 'We put bars on the windows after the first attack, three years ago,' says the 36-year-old mother of four. 'Now they come each week.'"

The attacks aren't always with Molotov cocktails; sometimes Jewish settlers throw tear gas canisters, simply spray a Star of David on a wall, or cut down trees owned by Palestinians. In other incidents, settlers have shot and killed a 16-year-old boy, fractured the skull of a 7-year-old girl with a rock, set a dog on a 12-year-old boy, and shot dead an Arab man but let his companion go when he identified himself as Jewish. These are not egregious, isolated cases of mayhem; they're just a few random examples of what's happening all too often on the West Bank. To see how depressingly common such violence is, just Google "West Bank settler violence" for yourself.

It's easy enough to see what the violence looks like too, since a lot of it has been captured on video. And this is just violence against people. The violence against property is far too common to begin to catalog.

Last December, Jewish settlers in Hebron went on a rampage, shooting at Palestinians, setting fire to homes, cars, and olive groves, defacing mosques and graves. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister at the time, said he was "ashamed" of this "pogrom."

Yet few such settler crimes are seriously prosecuted by the Israeli authorities. The Israeli rights group Yesh Din has documented this in an extensive report, which, the group carefully notes, is merely one more in a long line of similar reports:

"Since the 1980's many reports have been published on law enforcement upon Israelis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. All of the reports... warned against the failure of the authorities to enforce the law effectively upon Israelis... who committed offenses against Palestinian civilians... Yet the problem of attacks against Palestinian people and property by Israelis has only grown worse, becoming a daily occurrence."

Assessing Hamas Violence

Jewish settlers who commit violence claim just what the Israeli government claims when it directs state-sponsored violence at Palestinian areas: Self-defense -- it was nothing but self-defense. And it's certainly true that there are incidents of individual Palestinians venting their frustration violently. After all, they've been living under an arbitrary, demeaning, and sometimes brutal occupation for 42 years.

According to the common Israeli and American narratives, however, the real culprit and chief roadblock to peace is the constant violence -- suicide bombings and rocket attacks -- planned and carried out by a well-organized political party, Hamas. Again, as it happens, this popular version of events is simply not borne out by the facts.

Consider suicide bombings. In 2003 Israel's premier newspaper, Ha'aretz, reported that Hamas had decided "to stop terror against Israeli civilians if Israel stops killing Palestinian civilians." Though it's not clear that Israel did stop its own killings, Hamas soon halted its devastating suicide attacks. There were two in 2004 and not a single one in the nearly five years since then, according to the Jewish Virtual Library run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (a source hardly sympathetic to Hamas).

The same source counts no "major attacks" on Israeli civilians by any Palestinians since 2006. Though there have been other attacks since then, their frequency has dropped dramatically, and none have been carried out by Hamas itself.

Israelis generally know what most Americans still don't: Suicide bombing, supposedly the trademark of "Palestinian terrorism," has virtually ceased. As a result, Israel's chief complaint has switched to Hamas rocket attacks. How can we let them have the West Bank, the argument goes? Look what happened when we pulled all our settlements out of Gaza and got nothing in return but thousands of rockets. That's why we had no choice but launch our full-scale assault on Gaza in December 2008: to put an end to them.

In fact, though, Hamas rocket attacks had ended in July 2008, when Israel agreed to the ceasefire Hamas had been asking for. That agreement held for four months until Israeli troops killed six Hamas operatives -- shortly before Hamas and Fatah were scheduled to create a unified government. It's a familiar Israeli tactic: block Palestinian unity and then complain of "no partner for peace."

Hamas was also moved by the plight of its people in Gaza, growing increasingly short of food, medical supplies, and other basic goods due to an ever-tightening Israeli blockade.

Yet all this is lost in the story that most Israelis tell, and most Americans believe, about why Hamas began shooting rockets (which, compared to the massive Israeli onslaught in response, did relatively little damage). Equally lost is Hamas's return to its moratorium on firing rockets after the recent Gaza war, formally confirmed by the party's leader, Khaled Meshal, in the New York Times.

Occasional rockets do fly out of Gaza, provoking the usual Israeli demand that Palestinian authorities must prevent every single incident of violence before there can be any talk of peace. That's something like holding the U.S. government responsible for the recent shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington or the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

A Mirror Image?

Still, the Palestinian governments in both Gaza and the West Bank could do more to control the private violence of their people, just as the Israeli government could do more to control Jewish settler violence. Yet none of these governments act vigorously because they risk alienating a small but significant portion of their political support.

As the Times's Ethan Bronner recently wrote: "There are striking parallels between the hard-core opponents of a peace deal on each side. They are generally driven by a belief in a law higher than any created by human legislatures; they are exceptionally motivated; and they are very well organized... Many Israeli governments have fallen over the issue."

For the risk of offending hard-core groups, neither side sees obvious countervailing political gain. While a minority on both sides condemns the violence of its compatriots, the majority seems to accept it as an excessive, unfortunate, but understandable response to provocations initiated by the enemy. So neither Hamas, nor Fatah, nor the Israeli government see any clear advantage in bending over backwards to stop attacks by non-state groups.

What's more, as Uri Avnery, the grand old man of the Israeli peace movement, explains: "On both sides, the overwhelming majority want an end to the conflict but do not believe that peace is possible -- and each side blames the other." Each side blames the other because so many on each side believe that those who perpetrate the violence represent the entirety of the other side. We could have peace, the universal complaint goes, if only "the Palestinians" or "the Israelis" would stop their violence.

The tragedy is that, on both sides, those who inflict violence gain little of practical value from it. Indeed the motives that keep the conflict boiling may have little to do with any hope of practical gain from it. When researchers asked nearly 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians what it would take to make peace, few focused on tangible benefits like gaining more land or resources. Most on both sides wanted see "their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures." They agreed that they would be willing to make concessions, but only if "the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values." The violence done by non-state actors is perversely satisfying, even if ultimately useless, because it's the most visible way to win little symbolic victories.

A New Narrative

Palestinians can argue, with good reason, that treating the two sides as mirror images creates a false equivalence. After all, one side is the occupier, constantly inflicting symbolic defeats through the use of state-sponsored violence that dwarfs the violence of its private citizens, or sometimes even more powerfully just by using its ability to re-organize the landscape. The other side is the occupied, a people with virtually no tools of state violence to wield even if they want to, struggling every day just to survive. In the U.S. and around the world there is growing pressure to reverse the traditional narrative of these last decades and turn the Israelis into the bad guys.

Given the tiny fraction of Americans who identify as pro-Palestinian, it's fruitless to think that a majority of us would ever adopt such a reversed narrative -- nor would it be very helpful, regardless of the facts. If the Obama administration really intends to be an even-handed broker, forcing the two sides to move towards genuine compromise at the negotiating table, it needs to represent a nation that tells an even-handed story.

Old narratives don't die out simply because they fail to fit the facts. They die out when a more appealing story comes along. The eroding support for Israeli policies in this country signals a growing appetite for a new, more even-handed narrative, one that says this:

The crucial conflict is not between Israel and Palestine. It's between peace and violence. Violence comes from both sides. But there's also the possibility of fostering a strong push for peace on both sides. Here in the U.S., we should urge our government to stop taking sides in the blame game, condemn all the violence -- including, for the first time, Israeli violence -- and support all forces of peace that exist or arise.

It is hard for many of my fellow Jews to accept the painful truth that we are as capable of violence as the Palestinians, or anyone else. But this new narrative is gaining ground rapidly in the American Jewish community, where groups like J Street and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom are making well-organized efforts to promote it and act upon it.

As non-Jewish Americans become aware of that change, they are likely to feel freer to adopt the even-handed narrative as their own, too. When enough of them do, the political winds in this country will change. Then the White House will feel safe enough to tell Israel, as well as Palestine, to stop both state and non-state violence. That's a necessary first step for an even-handed broker who hopes to open a path to peace.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be reached at

Copyright 2009 Ira Chernus

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Amazing Bird Story-- The Will toLive

(This came in this morning from one of my birding groups.)

Apologies to all for the long post, but I had to share this.

In the last few months I’ve had absolutely no time for birding. However, this past Monday morning I decided to take a few minutes to stop by the dam and see if there was anything interesting. There was nothing at the dam, so I started walking back along the shore, in the direction of the Mystic Valley Parkway.

About 200 feet from shore I saw something splashing in the water. It was a small, bright yellow bird. It looked like a gold finch or maybe a warbler. I couldn’t imagine why a non-aquatic bird would be so far from shore. It would splash around for about 5 seconds, then float for about the same amount of time, and then start splashing again. It looked like a bird playing in a bird bath, except that it was in the middle of a lake.

As I watched, I realized that the bird was not playing, but struggling. It didn’t float like a water bird would, with head and neck out of the water, rather it looked like it was lying on its stomach with its head barely above the water. It looked quite helpless.

I decided it must be a fledgling that either fell out of an over the water nest, or else thought that it could safely land on the water and then got in trouble when its wings got wet.

I realized it was either going to drown, or else get eaten by a big fish(there are a few species of fish who are very attracted to things that splash on the surface, in fact many fishing lures for bass and pickerel/pike are designed to mimic this behavior) or a predator bird.

Like everyone on this list, I’ve always had a soft spot for animals, so I thought it would be worth it to wade in and try to rescue the bird. This part of the lake is very shallow, so my only reservation was about having to spend the rest of day in wet work boots. As I was trying to decide, the bird stopped splashing aimlessly, and started moving towards the shore. It seemed to have now figured out a way to propel itself forward in the water. The bird would flap its wings, which pushed down on the water, and caused the bird to rise out of the water and move forward. It looked like it was doing the breast stroke. I had never seen anything like it, but for a non-water bird trying to adapt, it was quite impressive. It must have been exhausting, as the bird would stop every few seconds and rest.

The bird steadily moved towards the shore. In fact, for a brief second I thought I might have been mistaken, and this was in fact a top water fishing lure, and there was someone fishing further down the shore, hidden in the woods(the trees go right up to the shore here).

I realize that sounds pretty dumb, but the whole thing happened so fast(exactly two minutes from the first sighting until the bird got to shore according to the data from my camera), and was so foreign to anything I had ever seen before, that it was hard to draw any definite conclusions about what I was seeing.

The bird safely make it to shore, about 20 feet away from where I was, and disappeared into the grasses and bushes that grew right up to the shoreline. I debated going over to see the bird up close, and then decided that it was probably exhausted and that if I disturbed it, the bird might go back into the water. Plus I needed to get back to work, so I decided to leave.

Before I left, I took a quick look at the photos I had been taking to see if I got any good shots. The photos were not good(more on that later), but as I looked closely at the photos, I noticed some green and black patches on the bird, and I realized that it wasn’t a gold finch or a warbler. Now this was getting really weird, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to very slowly try to move forward and try to spot the bird again and get a better look.

I saw the bird, and it was still in the water with its eyes closed. The water level is high right now, so the waters edge is at a slightly undercut bank of about 6 inches. The poor bird was so exhausted it was just sitting in about 3 inches of water, either too wet and heavy or just too weak to get out of the water. I doubted that sitting in the water was going to help matters any, and decided to try to pick the bird up and set it down on dry land.

I carefully picked up the bird, who did not try to resist. As I examined the bird up close, I realized what it was- a parakeet! The bird also had a band on its leg. Figuring this must be someone’s pet, I decided to hold onto the bird(literally, as I had no place to put it), and got into my truck still holding the bird.

I called Renee to ask her for advice. I left a message on her answering machine, and then remembered that my cousin and his wife have a 25 year old pet cockatiel, and live within walking distance of the dam. Even better, they had both taken the day off from work, were home when I called, and had an extra bird cage. I drove to their house, still holding the bird, (who by now had pooped on my hand). By the time I got to their house, they had the cage all ready, with fresh water and seed. The parakeet, who still looked quite frazzled(and I might add, smelled like the lake), went right over to the seeds and started eating.

By now Renee had called me back and suggested I call the Mass Audubon help line, which I did. According to Linda, who answered the phone(and works with Marj!) they keep track of both lost and found birds, and have successfully reunited several birds with their owners over the years.

By the end of the day, according to my cousin, the parakeet had recovered nicely, was eating, drinking, preening, playing with the mirror in the cage, and chattering with the nearby cockatiel.

When I got home that night I checked the lost and found section on Craigslist(I can’t remember who suggested I check there, it was either Renee or Linda from MassAudubon), and there was a post about a lost yellow and green parakeet from Washington Street in Winchester, that had gotten out of its cage two days earlier.

I emailed the poster, who responded with a photo of the lost bird, and sure enough, it was the same bird. The bird belonged to the poster’s 12 year old daughter, who was overjoyed to get her pet back.

I have posted some photos, which are worth looking at only because the sight of a bird doing the breaststroke is so unusual. I apologize for the poor quality, the sun was at an angle where the water appears very dark, but the light colored bird is getting a great deal of sunlight. The cameras’ exposure meter read the majority of the scene, which is dark, and ended up horribly overexposing the bird. To add insult to injury, the overexposure is achieved by using a very slow shutter speed, which makes the photo blurry. Not that I should make excuses.

I’m just happy I made time to go birding on Monday.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fascinating Story on Whales, from Yesterday's NY Times Magazine

July 12, 2009

Watching Whales Watching Us

On the afternoon of Sept. 25, 2002, a group of marine biologists vacationing on Isla San José, in Baja California Sur, Mexico, came upon a couple of whales stranded along the beach. A quick assessment indicated that they had died quite recently. The scientists radioed a passing vessel and sent a message to a colleague at a nearby marine-mammal laboratory, who came to the beach to do an examination.

They were beaked whales, of which there are 20 known species. Relatively small members of the cetacean family, they resemble outsize dolphins, and because of their deep-diving ways, they are among the least observed and understood. Curiously, the stranding on Isla San José followed by just one day the stranding of at least 14 other beaked whales 5,700 miles away along the Canary Islands beaches of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. Rescuers there worked feverishly to water down the whales and keep them cool. They all eventually died, however, and some of their bodies were immediately sent to the nearby city Las Palmas de Gran Canaria for analysis.

It is nearly impossible to pinpoint the precise cause of a whale’s stranding. Theories invariably include factors like the straying of a sick and dying whale leader, faithfully followed by the members of his pod, or sudden shallows along the shores of a migratory route. The two strandings in September 2002, however, did have something intriguing in common. It was noted by the Canary Islands rescuers that naval vessels were carrying out exercises that day not far offshore, a situation that had accompanied four other mass whale strandings on Canary Islands beaches since 1985. And while no such military exercises were being conducted off the beaches of Isla San José, the vessel that the scientists radioed turned out to be a research ship dragging an array of powerful underwater air guns that were repeatedly set off the previous morning in the course of seismic tests of the region’s ocean floor.

The suspicion of a causal relationship between whale strandings and either seismic tests or the use of new high-tech sonar tracking devices in military-training exercises had been mounting for some time. Similar coincidences had been noted off the coasts of Brazil, the Bahamas, the Galápagos Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Japan, as well as in the waters off Italy and Greece. Necropsies performed on a number of the whales revealed lesions about their brains and ears. The results of the examinations performed on the Canary Islands whales, however, added a whole other, darker dimension to the whale-stranding mystery. In addition to bleeding around the whales’ brains and ears, scientists found lesions in their livers, lungs and kidneys, as well as nitrogen bubbles in their organs and tissue, all classic symptoms of a sickness that scientists had naturally assumed whales would be immune to: the bends.

It might sound like something out of a bad sci-fi film: whales sent into suicidal dashes toward the ocean’s surface to escape the madness-inducing echo chamber that we humans have made of their sound-sensitive habitat. But since the Canary Islands stranding in 2002, similar necropsy results have turned up with a number of beached whales, and the deleterious effects of sonar and other human-generated sounds on ocean ecosystems have been firmly established.

As described in a 2005 report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Sounding the Depths II: The Rising Toll of Sonar, Shipping and Industrial Ocean Noise on Marine Life,” oceans that as recently as 100 years ago had been one vast, ongoing whale and piscine chorus have now essentially become senses-wilting miasmas of human-made noise. At a 2004 International Whaling Commission symposium, more than 100 scientists signed a statement asserting that the association between sonar and whale deaths “is very convincing and appears overwhelming.”

The question of sonar’s catastrophic effects on whales even reached the Supreme Court last November, in a case pitting the United States Navy against the Natural Resources Defense Council. The council, along with other environmental groups, had secured two landmark victories in the district and appellate courts of California, which ruled to heavily restrict the Navy’s use of sonar devices in its training exercises. The Supreme Court, however, in a 6-to-3 decision widely viewed as a setback for the environmental movement, overturned parts of the lower-court rulings, faulting them for, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion, failing “properly to defer to senior Navy officers’ specific, predictive judgments,” thereby jeopardizing the safety of the fleet and sacrificing the public’s interest in military preparedness by “forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force.” In his decision, Roberts went on to minimize, in a fairly dismissive tone, the issue of harm to marine life: “For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine animals that they study and observe.”

Still, the majority’s verdict somehow seemed incidental to the greater, tacit victory for environmentalists of having gotten the nation’s highest court to even consider the well-being of whales in the context of a debate about national security, something that would have been unthinkable not so very long ago. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice David Souter, took pains to cite the research linking sonar to “mass strandings of marine mammals, hemorrhaging around the brain and ears, acute spongiotic changes in the central nervous system and lesions in vital organs.” After quoting as well the Navy’s own environmental assessments of the extensive damages that its exercises would cause, Ginsburg went on to conclude: “In my view, this likely harm . . . cannot be lightly dismissed, even in the face of an alleged risk to the effectiveness of the Navy’s 14 training exercises.” Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, meanwhile, the Navy has made an agreement with the N.R.D.C. to do more extensive environmental-impact studies and advanced scouting to avoid, whenever possible, conducting exercises in close proximity to whales.

In the end, the Supreme Court dispute over the use of sonar can be viewed as a turning point in our fraught relationship with whales — a moment when new insights into the behavior of our long-inscrutable, seabound mammalian counterparts began forcing us to reconsider and renegotiate what once seemed to be a distinct boundary between our world and theirs. Scientists have now documented behaviors like tool use and cooperative hunting strategies among whales. Orcas, or killer whales, have been found to mourn their own dead. Just three years ago, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York discovered, in the brains of a number of whale species, highly specialized neurons that are linked to, among other things, the use of language and were once thought to be the exclusive property of humans and a few other primates. Indeed, marine biologists are now revealing not only the dizzying variety of vocalizations among a number of whale species but also complex societal structures and cultures.

Whales, we now know, teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.

Whale! Two o’clock!” our boatman and guide, Ranulfo Mayoral, shouted one morning in March, steering toward a distant spout of vapor above the clear blue waters of western Baja’s Laguna San Ignacio, where I’d gone in hopes of experiencing firsthand this ever-evolving relationship between humans and whales. We had been out in Mayoral’s 18-foot fishing skiff, or panga, the Dolphin II, for less than 20 minutes — myself, a marine mammal behavioralist named Toni Frohoff and a group of three other whale watchers — and already we had a number of gray whales in our sights, yet another exhalation appearing now along the Pacific’s horizon, followed, in turn, by the balletic, sun-glistened flourish of a suddenly upraised tail, or fluke.

They largely elude us, whales, thus their deep allure. The earth’s most massive creatures, they nevertheless spend the bulk of their lives off in their own element, beyond our ken, about as close as fellow mammals can get to being extraterrestrials. Other than the occasional disoriented stray or the victims of strandings, whales typically visit us only fleetingly, to grab a passing breath of air or, rarer still, when they’re breaching: spectacular, body-long heaves, the impetus for which still baffles scientists, who have attributed them to everything from sheer exuberance to attempts to shake off body lice. And yet for all of their inherent elusiveness, the gray whales of Baja baffle scientists for the opposite reason: They can’t seem to get enough of us humans.

When I first contacted Frohoff, a specialist in whale well-being and stress, back in January in Seattle, where she lived at the time, she mentioned that she would soon be heading down to Baja as part of her ongoing research into “the human-whale interactions there.” Each winter and early spring, gray whales, members of the baleen family (named for the keratin mouth plates through which they filter their food) arrive by the thousands to the warm, placid lagoons off Baja’s western coast, where the mothers give birth and nurse their calves for two to four months before beginning the migration northward to their feeding grounds in the subpolar waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Typically such child-rearing is a time of intense seclusion and protectiveness among mammalian species, but many of the grays of Baja, Frohoff told me, treat their days of birthing and nursing there as a kind of protracted coming-out party. “It’s extraordinary,” she said. “At precisely the time when you’d expect them to be the most defensive, they’re incredibly social. They’ll come right up to boats, let people touch their faces, give them massages, rub their mouths and tongues.”

The very notion of sociable, extroverted whales seemed to me at the time an oxymoron. And yet even as Mayoral, our guide, was speeding toward the blow we just sighted that morning, we were being treated to a spectacular breaching display: four consecutive, time-delayed flights of a mother gray’s 40-foot-long, 30-ton bulk; a performance so exhilarating I couldn’t believe that Mayoral was suddenly slowing his panga to a sputtering idle. Until, that is, he happened to mention that the very whale we were pursuing was now in fast pursuit of us.

“She’s coming straight this way,” Frohoff shouted as she reached for the sound-recording device she has fondly dubbed Fluffy — a two-foot-long, cylindrical microphone sheathed in a filtering fleece of shaggy fur — and held it off the bow toward a darkening wave of advancing whale.

Among the most ancient of all the whales, grays are also by far the homeliest, their gunmetal bulks encrusted with barnacles and lice and the crisscrossed scars of everything from orca attacks to the blades of boat propellers. Indeed, the mother gray fast approaching us just then looked like one of those sunken Civil War-era submarines and appeared to be just as inert, until she suddenly surfaced right alongside us with a huge, plosive whoosh of air from her blowhole before submerging once more.

Eighteen feet of boat on open seas is in almost any circumstance a tenuous alignment. But to suddenly find yourself in that same small vessel above a fleet, 40-foot-long midsea mastodon — one whose fluke alone could, with a cursory flip, send you and your boat soaring skyward — is to know the pure, wonderfully edgeless fear of complete acquiescence. I watched, wide-eyed, the soundless slide of that “moving land,” as Milton once described whales, everywhere beneath our boat, and suddenly felt the whole of myself wanting to go away with her; to hop on for a long ride downward toward some dimly remembered, primordial home.

And then, within moments, the mother was surfacing again off to our stern and doubling back in our direction, but this time with her newborn male in tow: a miniature version of herself — if two tons of anything can be referred to as miniature — the calf’s skin still shiny and smooth. The baby gray glided up to the boat’s edge, and then the whole of his long, hornbill-shaped head was rising up out of the water directly beside me, a huge, ovoid eye slowly opening to take me in. I’d never felt so beheld in my life.

A FELLOW MAMMAL breaking the boundary of its domain for a long look at you is beguiling in and of itself. Such behavior becomes downright otherworldly, however, when you consider the not-so-distant history of human-whale interactions in the birthing lagoons of Baja. Much like their extinct Atlantic counterparts or the extremely endangered 100 or so western Pacific gray whales that still yearly ply the coastal waters between South Korea and Siberia, eastern Pacific grays were nearly hunted out of existence as recently as 75 years ago. The waters of Laguna San Ignacio once ran red with whale blood each winter and spring, orphaned calves circling whalers’ vessels for days afterward before dying themselves of starvation.

Gray whales, thought by some scientists to live as long as 100 years, were once commonly referred to as “hardheaded devil fish” because of the ferocity with which they would defend themselves and their young, smashing whaling vessels and killing their occupants. A gray-whale hunting ban agreed upon by most of the world’s whaling nations in 1937, along with the inherent resilience and adaptability of the eastern Pacific gray, has since allowed the species a rather remarkable rebound. Its current population is estimated to be in the range of 18,000, and in 1994 the gray became the first marine mammal to be removed from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Still, the question of why present-day gray-whale mothers, some of whom still bear harpoon scars, would take to seeking us out and gently shepherding their young into our arms is a mystery that now captivates whale researchers and watchers alike.

Some marine biologists have dismissed the phenomenon as little more than a reflexive behavior, suggesting that the whales are merely attracted to the sound of the boats’ motors or that they are looking to scratch their lice-ridden and barnacled backs against the boats’ hulls. Still, a combination of anecdotal evidence and recent scientific research into whale biology and behavior suggests that there may be something far more compelling going on in the lagoons of Baja each winter and spring. Something, let’s say, along the lines of that time-worn plot conceit behind many a film, in which the peaceable greetings of alien visitors are tragically rebuffed by human fear and ignorance. Except that in this particular rendition, the aliens keep coming back, trying, perhaps, to give us another chance. To let us, of all species, off the hook.

The story is by now legend in the small fishing villages of Baja and beyond: how on a February morning in 1972, Francisco Mayoral — who is known as Pachico and happens to be the father of Ranulfo, the guide on my trip with Frohoff — was out in his panga with his partner, Santo Luis Perez, fishing for sea bass when a female gray whale approached their boat. Pachico tried to maneuver away. The whale, however, kept rising up beside them. At one point, she positioned herself directly under the panga. Pachico, Ranulfo told me one night over dinner at our beachside base camp, had no choice but to hold his place and wait for what would come next. “All he knew,” Ranulfo recalled of his father, “was that this animal was the boss.”

Human-whale relations at that time in Laguna San Ignacio were testy at best. Stories circulated about female grays smashing boats and overturning kayaks, and local fishermen and visitors alike were still making a point of steering clear of the devil fish, ever mindful of its fearsome reputation and of the turbulent history of human-whale interactions in San Ignacio and the other birthing lagoons of Baja — Bahía Magdalena to the south, Guerrero Negro and Ojo de Liebre to the north.

Ojo de Liebre was once known as Scammon’s Lagoon, after Charles M. Scammon, the 19th-century whaling captain who first discovered Baja’s birthing lagoons. A pioneer of modern commercial whaling and the newly emerging field of cetology, Scammon used new shoulder-launched harpoon guns that allowed him to take not only mother grays and their calves but migrating bulls, too, all along the gray’s coastal migratory route, thus setting the stage for the near extinction of the very species that Scammon himself exhaustively studied and detailed in “The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America, Together With an Account of the American Whale-Fishery,” published in 1874, 23 years after “Moby Dick” and, like it, still considered one of the best books ever written about whales and whaling.

Human-whale relations have long been defined by this stark dualism: manic swings between mythologizing and massacre; between sublime awe and assiduous annihilation, the testimonies of their slayers often permeated with a deep sense of both remorse and respect for the victims. In our earliest cosmologies, the whale loomed so large as to be more or less commensurate with the cosmos, equally vast and unknowable, as hugely fearsome and immeasurable as any god. The very earth was said to be borne upon the back of a whale, one whose writhings caused earthquakes and floods. In “A Thousand and One Nights,” Sinbad and his crew come at one point upon a pristine island. They set up camp there and light fires to cook their food, only to find themselves suddenly being tossed off and dashed at sea by the violent trembling of the whale they had mistaken for land. Similar tales of mistaken “whale-lands” recur throughout early literature.

IN A SENSE, the urge to kill the whale was originally rooted as much in a need to conquer and contain the unknown as it was in a need to gather the bounty of its actual flesh and bone. As far back as the first century B.C., a whale skeleton was transported from Palestine to Rome merely for the public to marvel at. This same impulse would persist through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when ours had become a world lighted, greased and corseted by whale oil and bone. Joe Roman, a biologist at the University of Vermont, recounts in his book “Whale” that in cities and towns across Europe and the United States, the chemically preserved carcasses of beached whales became wildly popular traveling exhibitions. One blue whale that stranded off the coast of Sweden in the 1860s was converted into a kind of traveling cetological cafe that for years made the rounds of Europe’s major cities. People would stroll in through the whale’s opened mouth and have tea inside its belly before re-emerging, Jonah-like, back into the light of day.

By the middle of the 20th century, worldwide stocks of nearly all the earth’s whale species had been so depleted that the newly formed International Whaling Commission began placing limits and wholesale bans on commercial whaling in the futile hope of saving an industry fast running out of its only resource. Earth’s oil, meanwhile, had by then more or less obviated our need for the whale’s, which, because of its inherent resistance to extreme cold, is used now only in the most specialized machinery of, appropriately enough, sea and space exploration: deep-diving subs, Mars and lunar rovers and the Hubble Space Telescope. In the end, our conquest of whales has mirrored that of the very earth we once thought whales symbolized, just as our current regard for both entities now stems, in large part, from an increasing awareness of their finitude and frailty.

Of course, as the mother gray kept circling his boat on that February morning in 1972, the question of whether the grays of Baja had somehow heard the news of our gradual transition from murdering whales to marveling at them was very much on the mind of Pachico Mayoral. “At one point she went directly under and lifted the boat out of the water,” Ranulfo, the son, told me. Pachico and his partner were poised there helplessly, like Sinbad and countless other travelers along the “whale road,” as early Icelanders once referred to the sea.

And then their boat soon settled again, and the mother gray came back around once more, her head popping up out of the water now directly beside Pachico. She remained there for so long, just eyeing him, that Pachico finally reached across and touched her with a finger. And then with his whole hand, the whale holding still there before him, as if basking in the feel of a grasp without malice. “Before then, everyone went out of our way to avoid the whales,” Ranulfo told me. “And then all of that suddenly changed.”

It wasn’t until I got back to our base camp on the day of my first close whale encounter that I could begin to parse what happened in a calm and coherent fashion: the seemingly undeniable fact, for example, that the mother whale’s first pass that morning was a reconnaissance mission to check out our boat, and us, before offering up her calf for review: his of us and ours of him.

I read before my journey to Baja of what happens to people when they come in contact with a whale, how they tend to go, literally and figuratively, a bit overboard: nearly tipping over boats for a passing touch; spontaneously breaking into song; crying out in ecstasy; or just flat-out crying. Frohoff herself warned me as we were first boarding Dolphin II that morning that she was given to doffing her scientist hat in the presence of a whale, and sure enough, there was Fluffy, her microphone, set down for a moment beneath her seat, Frohoff dangling far out over the boat’s prow, arms outstretched, cooing and trilling at the approaching mother and calf. Another watcher in our boat began singing Broadway show tunes. I joined in.

A behavioral and wildlife biologist, Frohoff is something of a pioneer in the field of human-cetacean interactions, having begun her career in the early 1980s studying the to and fro between dolphins and people — both in captivity, with the then-emerging swim-with-dolphins therapy programs, and in the wild. She currently serves as the research director of TerraMar Research, dedicated to the protection of marine mammals and their ecosystems, and is a founder of its educational offshoot, the Trans-Species Institute. She began observing the extraordinary goings-on with the so-called Friendlies of Baja in the late 1990s.

“Studying human-gray whale interactions was a natural progression for me and my work,” Frohoff told me as we sat up talking one night in base camp, the usually persistent desert winds so still at that moment that we could hear, out in the lagoon, the ethereal sound of whales breathing. “And yet even as somebody who has specialized in human-dolphin interactions, I was not prepared for the profound nature of what’s going on down here. These encounters are highly unique and rare. And there’s another word for it: it’s an enigma. Intellectually, it is an enigma as to why gray whales do this, because there’s a continuity and predictability to these interactions. What we have here are highly sophisticated minds in very unique bodies, living in such a different environment, and yet these whales are approaching us with some frequency for what appears to be sociable tactile contact. And with no food involved.”

The very coastal existence that has long afforded grays the protective lagoons for giving birth and nursing and the coastline kelp beds in which to feed and shield their young from the assaults of orcas on the journey north, has also, with the rise of human civilization, increasingly exposed them to a gantlet of human-made perils: ship and small-boat traffic as well as various chemical contaminants and forms of noise pollution, including military sonar.

Despite a mysterious die-off between 1998 and 2000, during which several thousand whales perished, the eastern Pacific gray has thus far proved to be one of the few whale-conservation success stories. Hunted to near extinction by whalers in the 1850s and again in the early 1900s with the introduction of so-called floating factories — modern whaling vessels that allowed for the immediate on-board flensing and refinement of the carcass — the gray-whale population was reduced, according to some estimates, to fewer than 1,000 animals, a small fraction of their current estimated population of 18,000. Nearly all other whale species, by contrast, have been far slower to rebound, with some scientists estimating that none have reached even half of their former numbers.

Indeed, grays have exhibited a degree of resiliency and adaptability that suggests, among other things, that their sociability in Baja is far more than a reflexive, moth-to-flame-like behavior. Elizabeth Alter, a marine biologist at the N.R.D.C., has done research, for example, that indicates that grays have what she describes as “a great degree of behavioral flexibility.” With time and shifting circumstances, they have switched from exclusive bottom-feeding to occasionally foraging higher up in the water column, and they have been able to seek out a variety of different feeding grounds depending on the conditions and obstacles with which they are confronted. A good percentage of the gray-whale population, Alter also says, may have avoided the Baja lagoons during the peak hunting years and found other areas to calve and nurse.

“Some naysayers,” Toni Frohoff told me, “might claim that these whales don’t have the intelligence to know the difference between the present peaceful climate in the lagoon and what transpired in the past, that they’re not smart enough to remember that humans can inflict pain and cause death. However, historical evidence, as well as the limited data we do have on these whales, compels us to think otherwise. I mean, there are numerous stories of how they avoid certain areas and learn to stay away from particular trouble spots, as well as the simple fact that they have to be intelligent and have good memories to survive the way they have, especially navigating along their migratory route, which involves not only memory but making quick assessments and decisions that go beyond just instinctual behaviors. So for me the most plausible explanation, without having any data indicating otherwise, is that they’ve now come to consider us as safe in these areas.”

TO DATE, NO neurological studies of the gray-whale brain have been done. In 2006, however, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine analyzed the brains of two other baleen species — humpback and finback whales — as well as those of a number of toothed whales like dolphins and killer and sperm whales. The study revealed brain structures surprisingly similar to our own. Some, in fact, contained large concentrations of spindle cells — often referred to as the cells that make us human because of their link to higher cognitive functions like self-awareness, a sense of compassion and linguistic expression — with the added kick that whales evolved these same highly specialized neurons as many as 15 million years before we humans did, a stunning instance of a phenomenon biologists refer to as parallel evolution.

“In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species,” the Mount Sinai scientists concluded in a report in the November 2006 edition of the journal The Anatomical Record, “it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales and certainly humpback whales exhibit complex social patterns that include intricate communication skills, coalition formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage.” They added that it is therefore “likely that some of these abilities” are related to the comparable complexity in the brain structures of whales and hominids.

The sperm whale, for example, which has the largest brain on earth, weighing as much as 19 pounds, has been found to live in large, elaborately structured societal groups, or clans, that typically number in the tens of thousands and wander over many thousands of miles of ocean. The whales of a clan are not all related, but within each clan there are smaller, close-knit, matriarchal family units. Young whales are raised within an extended, multitiered network of doting female caregivers, including the mother, aunts and grandmothers, who help in the nurturing of babies and, researchers suspect, in teaching them patterns of movement, hunting techniques and communication skills. “It’s like they’re living in these massive, multicultural, undersea societies,” says Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and the world’s foremost expert on the sperm whale. “It’s sort of strange. Really the closest analogy we have for it would be ourselves.”

Whitehead has even discovered distinct clan dialects using different codas, what he describes as a “Morse code-like pattern of clicks” that the whales make with their long head cavities and use to communicate with one another over many miles, reinforcing social bonds and declaring clan affiliation. Whitehead, who has been tracking and recording sperm whales around the globe since the early 1980s, has positively identified five distinct clan dialects and studied two extensively. “The regular clan,” he told me in a phone conversation from his lab in Nova Scotia, “makes three to eight equally spaced clicks. And then there are the Plus-One clans. They have two to eight clicks and then a pause and an added click at the end, kind of like the Canadian ‘eh.’ We’ve also noticed that these clans ply the water differently. Regular groups move in wiggly tracks closer to shore, while the Plus-Ones swim further from shore in straight lines.”

Whales display an incredible degree of coordination and cooperation in their efforts. Aaron Thode, an associate research scientist from the Scripps Institution, who was in Baja doing acoustical studies of grays, told me of another project he is involved in, using the latest research tools to gain insights into how whales perceive the world. He showed me an extraordinary video of sperm whales pilfering catch from fishermen’s lines in Alaska, 50-foot-long, massive-jawed behemoths delicately snatching a single black cod from a longline’s dangling hook, like an hors d’oeuvre from a cocktail toothpick. Fishermen are currently losing 5 to 10 percent of their yearly haul and fear the problem could become worse because whales who have mastered the technique are busily teaching it to others. The news seems to be rapidly spreading, as reports of similar fish-snatching are coming in from fishermen all over the world.

Humpback whales, meanwhile, have devised a prime example of what Fred Sharpe, executive director of the Alaska Whale Foundation, has described as “communal tool use.” Based on 20 years of observing humpbacks at sea and simulating their behaviors in the laboratory, Sharpe has been able to piece together the humpback’s rather ingenious fishing strategy. A group of humpbacks will get together and begin herding prey — herring, for example — toward the sea surface through the use of coordinated hunting calls. A designated leader of the group, meanwhile, will dive beneath the herded fish and emit from its blowhole an intense stream of rising bubbles, essentially forming a tube-shaped net to hold the fish in place. Waiting for the precise moment when the net has fully formed and captured the optimum number of fish, the group then rises as one, mouths agape, toward the surface.

Somehow the more we learn about whales, the more we’re coming to appreciate the sublimely discomfiting reality that a kind of parallel “us” has long been out there roaming the oceans' depths, succumbing to our assaults. Indeed, when that baby gray calf bobbed up out of the sea and held there that first morning, staring at me with his huge, slow-blinking eye, it felt to me as if he were taking one impossibly long and quizzical look in the mirror.

I asked Frohoff at one point if, given both the dark past of human-whale interactions in those lagoons and what we’ve now come to know about whale intelligence, there could possibly be some element of knowing forgiveness behind their actions. She took a deep breath and widened her eyes, making it clear that she wanted to be very careful about how she answered such a question.

“Those are the kinds of things that for the longest time a scientist wouldn’t dare consider,” she said. “But thank goodness we’ve gone through a kind of cognitive revolution when it comes to studying the intelligence and emotion of other species. In fact, I’d say now that it is my obligation as a scientist not to discount that possibility. We do have compelling evidence of the experience of grief in cetaceans; and of joy, anger, frustration and distress and self-awareness and tool use; and of protecting not just their young but also their companions from humans and other predators. So these are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility. And even if it’s not that exactly, I believe it’s something. That there’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and a biological perspective. I mean, I’d put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined. I find the reality of it far more enthralling than all our past whale mythology.”

ON MY FOURTH and final day in Baja, I set out once more with Frohoff in Ranulfo Mayoral’s panga. We were well into Hour 2 of our watch that last day when a mother gray suddenly emerged from San Ignacio’s riled-up waters a short distance off our bow. Having trained my eye somewhat over the previous days, I knew straight off that this was the same mother from my first day’s encounter because of the telltale markings of her barnacles and orange sea lice, some 400 pounds of which gray whales typically bear upon their bodies all of their adult lives.

The mother gray let out a great exhale before sliding under again, only to re-emerge a moment later, this time with her male calf, who began treating us to such a rollicking display of playful turns and flips we soon dubbed him Little Nut. For the next 30 minutes or so, despite the choppy seas, mother and son repeatedly wove us and our boat into their designs, and then all at once Little Nut popped up directly alongside the boat again and held there. I reached over and touched him on the head, the smooth, shiny, melon-cask of him, dimpled everywhere with stubbles of hair.

Then, as spontaneously as the interaction had been initiated, it was deemed, by the mother at least, over; time to move on to other things. Not, however, before she abruptly decided to admit us into that exclusive club of unwitting whale riders, the many Sinbads and other, real-life seafarers of this world.

“She’s coming under the boat,” Mayoral shouted, cutting the engine, and there we suddenly were, borne up on a swelling promontory of whale back, giddily airborne and helpless.

When Little Nut next emerged, the mother let us gently back down. She then thrust the whole of herself between her calf and our boat, and began to shepherd him away. For another 10 minutes or so, the two swam along about 50 yards off and parallel to us, the mother at one point going into a spectacular series of breaches, as if in both great relief and playful salutation, she and Little Nut fully off in their own element now, heading west toward the lagoon’s mouth and the open Pacific. “They’ll behave totally differently when they do decide to leave,” Mayoral said. “It’s all business out there. They know they’re going to be attacked and that they need food. There’s no time to be friendly.”

AMONG THE MANY obstacles migrating grays face in the course of their travels, boat traffic has become such a problem that a number of whale researchers are now proposing to establish an official boat-free zone or “whale’s lane,” as they call it. From the Icelanders’ “whale’s road” to the “whale’s lane” — a transition that, in many ways, encapsulates the entire arc of our history with whales: from mythologizing to massacre to marveling at and making way for them anew.

At the American Cetacean Society’s biennial conference in Monterey, Calif., last November, a mixed bag of gray-whale experts, marine biologists, marine paleontologists, geologists and oceanographic researchers participated in a workshop on “Gray Whales and Climate Change.” They proposed that the resiliency and adaptability of gray whales in response to the shifts in their environment made them what’s known as an indicator species, one whose health and long-term survival prospects are a good reflection of the state of the overall environment in which they live. “We refer to them now as ‘sentinels of the seas,’ ” says Steven Swartz, a government marine biologist in Silver Spring, Md., and one of the world’s foremost experts on gray whales. “Typically, an indicator species is among the smaller creatures in the environment, micro-organisms. But here we have the largest taking on that role. So it is very unique. Gray whales are delaying their southbound migration and spending less time in the breeding lagoons. They’re expanding their feeding grounds all along their migration route and in the north, and some are even staying in Arctic water over the winter, all of which reflect climate change and changes in the whole ecosystem.”

Scientists and devout whale watchers alike now keep constant vigil over the movements of gray whales up and down the West Coast, conducting a census of their numbers, watching out for the injured and stranded. By far the best-known stranding incident occurred in January 1997. A 7-day-old, 14-foot-long baby gray whale was found on the beaches of Marina del Rey, Calif., her skull and ribs evident from extreme malnourishment. An army of local volunteers tried to push her back out to sea to rejoin the southerly migration of her fellow grays, but by morning she was found in a nearby channel, listless, near death.

J. J., as the stranded baby was named, was loaded onto a flatbed truck and driven 150 miles south to SeaWorld in San Diego. The plan was to try to nurture J. J. back to health and release her back into the wild, something that had been done only once before with a captive gray whale, GiGi (for Gray Girl) at the same SeaWorld park. Kept in a 40-by-40-foot tank and tube-fed fluids, glucose and antibiotics, J. J. began to rebound. Soon shifting to a formula that included cream, puréed fish and vitamins, intended to approximate a mother’s milk, and then to a daily intake of up to 500 pounds of everything from krill to squid to sardines, J. J. by her 14th month had grown to be 30 feet long and 18,000 pounds, the largest marine mammal ever in captivity.

Her tenure at SeaWorld proved to be an invaluable learning experience for whale scientists. J. J. would lead researchers to, among other things, a key insight into the gray whale’s navigational skills. During the first spring of her stay at SeaWorld, J. J. was always found floating off to one side of her pool, and caretakers feared that she was perhaps suffering from boredom and depression. It soon dawned on them, however, that she was facing north, the direction of the gray’s spring migration. Subsequent necropsies on gray-whale brains revealed that they contain tiny particles of magnetic iron oxide, inner navigational ball bearings of a sort that whir in concert with the earth’s magnetic fields, guiding the whales toward their Arctic feeding grounds and, in the early winter, back down to Baja’s birthing lagoons. (Russian scientists, meanwhile, conducted sleep studies on J. J. and found the first definitive evidence that whales do, in fact, dream.)

By March 31, 1998, J. J.’s scheduled release date, millions around the world were following the story, hoping for the successful release of the largest animal ever to be returned back into the wild. The freeways were closed for J. J.’s transport to the release spot off San Diego’s Point Loma, where a construction crane lifted the 31-foot-long, 19,200-pound whale onto the Coast Guard vessel Conifer. Coast Guard helicopters, meanwhile, were out off Point Loma, scanning the seas for any pods of northward migrating grays that J. J. might join up with. Researchers also outfitted J. J. with radio transmitters in hopes of tracking, for the first time, a complete whale migration. The public would be able to log on to the SeaWorld Web site and track J. J.’s daily progress.

As her huge body was being hoisted with winches and harnesses off of the Conifer’s deck and then swung out and gently set down into the Pacific, the first question on everyone’s mind was would J. J. even know which way to swim. She immediately dove out of sight. Two days later, radio contact was lost, the transmitters having likely been scraped off against the ocean’s bottom.

The last confirmed sighting of J. J. had her not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. She was said to be near a group of migrating grays and heading north. Having been set free without any of the barnacled baggage and telltale scarring of a wild whale’s travels, J. J. cannot be positively identified. There is no way to confirm, for example, the hopeful rumor that I would hear often during my days in Baja: that J. J. is now among the Friendlies who return each winter to the waters of Laguna San Ignacio.

BACK AT OUR BASE camp that last night, still worked up from the day’s earlier turn with Little Nut and his mother, I sat up late talking with Mayoral and a number of the other boat guides, or pangeros. We talked that night mostly about the Friendlies and what might be behind their overtures toward us humans.

A distinctive aspect of the new cognitive revolution that Toni Frohoff spoke to me about is that scientific facts, of all things, are now freeing scientists like herself to be more expansive storytellers. The accusation of anthropomorphism — of projecting our thoughts and feelings on other animals; of trying to guess at what a whale’s day might be like, or a chimp’s or an elephant’s — has been obviated by the increasing evidence that such creatures have parallel days of their own, ones as distinctly intricate and woundable and, ultimately, unknowable as ours. “I don’t anthropomorphize,” Frohoff told me. “I leave it to other people to do that. What I do is study gray whales using the same rigorous methodologies that have long been used to study the behaviors of other species and interspecies interaction. Those who would reject out of hand the idea that whales are intelligent enough to consciously interact with us haven’t spent enough time around whales.”

The pangeros, for their part, have seen enough remarkable whale behavior to know better than to prejudge any explanation, however mind-bending, for what is going on in the lagoons of Baja. A 25-year-old named Alberto Haro Romero, known as Beto, told me of something he saw a month earlier while kayaking off Cabo San Lucas. A group of southward-migrating gray whales were suddenly surrounded and attacked by a pod of pilot whales. Out of nowhere, a group of humpbacks — who, like grays, are baleen whales — appeared and began going at the pilot whales, a highly coordinated counterattack. “It was unbelievable,” Beto said. “One baleen whale coming in on the behalf of another. It was, like, tribal.”

As Beto spoke, I thought of another bit of interspecies cooperation involving humpbacks that I recently read about. A female humpback was spotted in December 2005 east of the Farallon Islands, just off the coast of San Francisco. She was entangled in a web of crab-trap lines, hundreds of yards of nylon rope that had become wrapped around her mouth, torso and tail, the weight of the traps causing her to struggle to stay afloat. A rescue team arrived within a few hours and decided that the only way to save her was to dive in and cut her loose.

For an hour they cut at the lines and rope with curved knives, all the while trying to steer clear of a tail they knew could kill them with one swipe. When the whale was finally freed, the divers said, she swam around them for a time in what appeared to be joyous circles. She then came back and visited with each one of them, nudging them all gently, as if in thanks. The divers said it was the most beautiful experience they ever had. As for the diver who cut free the rope that was entangled in the whale’s mouth, her huge eye was following him the entire time, and he said that he will never be the same.

Charles Siebert, a contributing writer, is the author, most recently, of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”

From today's Boston Globe. The fireflies have been busy in my backyard this summer.

Amorous fireflies get boost from wet weather in capital

Scientists say this is bug’s brightest showing in years

WASHINGTON - This is that strange, sweet part of summer when life stops for a beetle’s behind.

On a June night, a woman blast-e-mailed her Bethesda, Md. neighborhood: “Go outside RIGHT NOW. Look into the dark.’’ At a park in Arlington, Va., a man clicked one flash from a penlight and waited for an insect to signal back.

This is firefly season in Washington, the best and brightest in several years. Scientists say a wet spring has made a lightning-bug-friendly region even more so, and hordes of the insects are now spending the last days of their lives floating over lawns and blinking in treetops.

In the daytime, most fireflies - there are about 2,000 species worldwide, 200 in the United States - look like a second cousin to the junebug. But at night, chemical reactions produce a glowstick light from their abdomens, each tiny bug worth about 1/40th of a candle.

This spectacle holds even more magic if you know what they’re saying.

“Then the whole world of fireflies opens up to you,’’ said Sara Lewis, a professor who studies the family Lampyridae (“shining ones’’) at Tufts University. There is seduction and rejection, codes and code-breaking, mating and eating alive. “You can watch the dialogue,’’ she said.

Across the country, scientists worry that firefly numbers have been driven down by lawn pesticides and sprawling concrete. Also, chemical companies have paid a per-bug bounty to get the chemicals in their tails, which are used in scientific research.

“We were a little worried,’’ said Michael Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, “but they seem to be back in force.’’

They provided such a show of strength in the Bannockburn neighborhood of Bethesda that a departing dinner guest pulled Jillaine Smith out of her house, to see a scene that looked like Christmas.

“They were everywhere,’’ Smith said. “We just stood there and stared for a long while, because what is there to say?’’

Then she went inside and e-mailed the neighborhood listserv: “MILLIONS of lightning bugs. The meadow is swarming with them. Go. Now.’’

In recent decades, scientists have been able to translate snippets of this firefly babel. They say the flashes are a muddle of conversations, usually several species communicating in the same meadow.

They’re talking - as animals usually are - about sex. The bugs in the air are all male, each flashing out a pattern distinctive to his species. The Big Dipper firefly, one of the most common in Washington, gives a long flash while flying in a “J’’ pattern. Photinus macdermotti flies straight and slow, flashing twice every six seconds. Some are Morse-code dots - blink.blink.blink - and some are dashes, bliiiink . . . bliiink.

Their audience is down in the grass: females who wait an interval, specific to their species, before responding with a blink or two.

“This tells the male, ‘There’s a female here, and let’s go down an investigate further and maybe mate,’ ’’ said Jonathan Copeland, a biology professor at Georgia Southern University.

Maybe. The life of a male firefly is not easy.

In some cases, the come-hither responses are a deadly ruse, from a larger species that has cracked its prey’s code. When the male flies down to investigate, this femme fatale firefly will eat it, extracting chemicals it needs to ward off the things that might eat

In other cases, the males have trouble finding their mates in the forest of grass blades. Or the females don’t flash back at all. Recent research has shown they sometimes prefer males who flash longer and faster - which, for reasons involving the mechanics of firefly sex, may be better mates.

They’re all working with a time limit. Fireflies spend years as larvae underground and then emerge to fly only for a week or two. Their only mission is to reproduce before they die, and more than half of males will fail.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company