Archive for May, 2011

Things I Learned in the Space of Two Hours in Handöl

May 30th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

1. Tits prefer mosses and lichens for their nests; flycatchers prefer grasses…and sometimes, reindeer hair.

2. Reindeer hair is white, slightly oily-feeling, and very soft. I would not mind stroking a reindeer.

3. Pied flycatcher eggs are tiny and a beautiful pale blue, like the color of American robins’ eggs; blue tits lay bigger, creamy eggs mottled with brown.

4. There is at least one blue tit out there in the world that is not averse to building its nest on top of a dead relative: we found a corpse tucked into the bottom of an active nest box, buried under several strata of moss, its head perfectly preserved and its body mostly eaten. It was strange and interesting, and also made me feel oddly homesick for the lab.

5. Sometimes the smallest creatures are the fiercest. (Well, I knew that one already, I suppose.)

I should have more for you soon. In the meantime, I bid you a very good night from that special time of day over here where the sun is neither setting nor rising, but hanging out just under the horizon being beautiful.

Svenska Äventyr

May 24th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

Sunsets Happen Every Day

Well, folks, it’s almost time for me to start my long bus, train, plane, bus, and still-more-train journey to Lake Ånnsjön. I’m leaving you (and myself) with this photograph of an amazing Arizonan sunset, wondering all the while what the light will be like in the height of the Swedish summer. Will the sun still set? If so, at what time? How dark will it get, if at all? I promise I’ll let you know. See you on the other side.

Extinction of Silence

May 12th, 2011 | Meera

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.


My friend Megan sent me this poem two years ago, after I posted a photo of Long-tailed Widowbirds filed in a narrow drawer. I still think of it every time Dave sets me loose in the collections with a key, as he did today.

Wanting a little preview of what I’m likely to see in Sweden, I poked around for a few minutes after I was done with the birds I prepared. I opened cabinets and pulled out narrow drawers—newly purchased European bird guide in one hand and unfamiliar finches in the other. I retrieved what was once shy.

Most of the skins I looked at this afternoon were a hundred years old. Not so moth-eaten, not so far—still, they were faded, a little, and unable to convey the full measure of a life marked by song and flight. Nothing I wanted to see could vanish or take wing at my footsteps.

I am fonder of the museum’s drawers of specimens than I can say. But I am ready to be out with the birds this summer. We shall see what kinds of silences they sing.

Euplectes progne delamerei

Through Rose-breasted Grosbeak Glasses

May 5th, 2011 | Meera

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

I spent another lovely day at the bird lab, preparing two Grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) and this Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludivocianus). The whole time I was there I felt calm, happy, useful, and at home.

When I got back I had two voicemails and seventeen emails about various stressful work- and finance-related events, and these things deflated the pleasantly optimistic bubble that forms around me on Thursdays. But looking at this photo, and showing it to you, returns a tiny piece of it.

Talking About the Weather

May 2nd, 2011 | Meera

There is a little weather station on the University of Chicago campus, but it’s been out of service for the past couple of weeks as a result of the interminable construction they’ve been doing up on the roof of Ryerson. (Ryerson is the building whose roof also houses the telescope I told you about here.)

We in Hyde Park who rely on the neighborhood-specific temperature and wind-chill readings the weather station usually provides were quite bereft. But as of tonight, University of Chicago Weather is back up and running—and because I happened to attend the work night the astronomical society had scheduled for today, I got to help return it to action.

Specifically, I put a new battery in the weather station and held it for some minutes in my arms—like a tall and unattractive dancing partner, all bones and wiry hair and no conversation skills—before handing it to two others (more intrepid than I) who carried it up an incredibly long ladder to the top of a turret and reinstalled it.

I feel like I have touched greatness. Oh; and it’s currently 42 degrees out in Hyde Park. In case you were wondering.