Thoughts on the Deluge and the Future of Harris County

Harris County is now a large lake
Harris County transportation map for Sunday, August 27. Each water droplet represents impassable high water for regular motor vehicles. The entire county has become a lake.

How to help hurricane victims: 12, 3, 4.

It’s surreal now, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey–though the record-breaking inundation is not yet over–to think that Friday, August 25 was a regular workday for the city of Houston.  Days before, I asked my patients if they were ready, if they were staying or evacuating.  All were staying upon official advice from the mayor*, weren’t particularly concerned, and seemed ready to ride out the storm.

As you’ve read and heard about on the news, and as you’ve seen in photos of the area, millions of people have been adversely affected by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey, including many friends and colleagues whose homes and vehicles flooded.  A few people we know lost everything, were evacuated by the Coast Guard.  I worry about my patients.  I hope they’re safe.  I’m thankful that my parents, my brother, and my parents’ house survived the storm without difficulty.

Late last week, my girlfriend and I scrambled to stock up on food and water.  I’m glad that we were sufficiently neurotic to buy enough for a cataclysm, which is precisely what came to pass.  At the grocery store last Friday, a young man picking up the only remaining water bottles–Evian brand–in an otherwise empty aisle (the rest of the store was well-stocked, including the soda aisle), said that he’s “going to feel like an idiot buying this expensive water if the storm misses us.”

I stopped at a gas station near home to fill up my car, because that’s what one does during hurricane season here (to be able to evacuate, if needed).  Several pumps were closed.  “Super” was the only quality available.  The pump I chose sputtered erratically for at least five minutes before running out of gas, something I’ve never experienced before.

That night, in an ominous turn, we lost power for several hours even though it was placid outside.  Power returned, miraculously not going out again despite more than forty inches of rainfall in our area, recurrent tornado watches, and bursts of high wind since then.  We’re grateful to have had running water, too.  We don’t have a boat, so we inflated three airbeds in case we need to float out on them.  It rained heavily last night, is raining intermittently today.  We could lose power or running water at any time.  The only reason our location hasn’t flooded, I think, is that rainwater continues to drain down the riparian forest next to us and into a large brackish bayou that empties into the Gulf, an “infinite” reservoir, via large/near connections.  We’ve been extremely lucky.  Rain might not have affected us directly this time, but if a hurricane hit us at the right spot, and it well could in the future, the storm surge could seriously damage or destroy our home.

When I went for a run two days ago, I saw that the major streets surrounding our neighborhood were partly submerged, with water gurgling up from manhole covers in other areas.  A Ford Mustang parked streetside seemed to have caught fire at some point because it was scorched on the outside and completely burned on the inside.

We haven’t attempted to drive anywhere since Friday.  We, like most other residents of the county–which has become a large lake–are physically isolated for now, unable to drive out to see or help others.  Many important details, such as the numbers of missing/trapped/dead people, are not yet known.  There have been calls for medical personnel both locally and downtown.  Our clinics are trying hard to reopen.  My girlfriend and I–both of us physicians–look forward to helping with relief efforts as soon as the floodwaters recede and we can go to where we’re needed.  We’re heartened by the great efforts of ordinary citizens and rescue teams in badly flooded areas.

Climate change is likely responsible for the alarming intensity of our recent hurricanes and tropical storms, including Harvey.  We also know that the future of Houston, of Harris County, is grim unless flood control officials and local/state politicians stop denying climate change, unless they halt urban development, unless they preserve (and rebuild) native prairies, marshes, and other natural areas that reduce flood risk, and, critically, unless they significantly improve the storm surge mitigation strategies of the petroleum and chemical industry here.  They’ve allowed urban sprawl to take over the county.  They’ve allowed builders to pave undeveloped land that would otherwise absorb rain.  Every hurricane season, there’s a significant risk of a catastrophic oil/chemical spill because the storm surge barriers currently in place in the “chemical engineering” sector of Harris County are inadequate and politicians aren’t doing anything about it.

*Our mayor’s rationale for not evacuating the city is that many people died while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic when the city was evacuated before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005.  (I had just started medical school at that time.  I helped my parents board up their house.  We drove for many hours just to get from one side of Houston to the other.)  However, since Harvey arrived as a tropical storm, not as a hurricane, we feel that evacuating people in the most flood-prone areas could have saved lives and reduced the need for rescues.

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Pilgrimage to Santa Ana: Protest Border Wall Plans, Protect South Texas Wildlife

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Fellow protesters standing on Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge’s levee, where the border wall will be erected, likely ending public access to the refuge.

At the confluence of multiple different environments–“subtropical climate, Gulf Coast, Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert“–and at the nexus of “two major migratory routes for many species of birds” (the Central and Mississippi flyways), Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is home to “half of all butterfly species in North America,” ~400 bird species, even more species of plants, and is home to the Texas ocelot and Gulf Coast jaguarundi, which are no longer found in the US outside South Texas.  This relatively small refuge (only 2,088 acres) is thus considered the “crown jewel” of the national wildlife refuge system.  It’s part of what makes America great.  Birders and other naturalists drawn to Santa Ana and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley support the local economy with at least $300 million every year, as estimated by this 2011 study based on off-peak visitation.

As federal land, it’s also one of the starting points this November for Trump’s ill-advised expansion of the US-Mexico border wall, which will be built on the levee between the parking lot/visitor center and the refuge itself, cutting the refuge off and threatening to destroy it.

The first place I ever wanted to visit, when I got into birding a decade ago, was Santa Ana.  I read that South Texas is the best place to bird (and to see butterflies) in the US and Canada, especially during spring and fall migrations.  Then the 2009 swine flu outbreak dissuaded me from making the trip.  I graduated from medical school, moved to California for residency, and didn’t bird in Texas again for years.

Last weekend, I finally visited for the first time.  We drove from Houston to Alamo, one of the most southerly Texas towns, to experience Santa Ana for ourselves, and, along with ~681 like-minded pilgrims from near and far, marched against the planned border wall and for Santa Ana’s continued protection and preservation.

Abstract superlatives about Santa Ana that anyone can read online are relatively meaningless until one actually visits the place.  This is an account of our brief experience.

As hot as it is right now where we live, it’s even hotter in three of the four cardinal directions away from Houston.  This is definitely not the best time to visit the refuge.  Nevertheless, within a few minutes, I encountered multiple “life species”–species I’d never seen before.  What’s more, I wouldn’t be able to see several of them anywhere else in the US or Canada.

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Close-up of one of the many groove-billed anis we saw at Santa Ana NWR. We saw the smaller smooth-billed and the iridescent blue-black greater ani in Ecuador earlier this year but hadn’t encountered the saurian groove-billed ani until last weekend.

Unlike most other natural places I’ve visited, Santa Ana is tucked away, with little signage, in an area dominated by development:  a paved jungle of gaudy chain stores and congested gas stations yields to old neighborhoods and finally to plowed land, with little trace of the original habitat.  Visiting the refuge is like taking a time machine to a lost natural world destroyed by development over many decades.

We visited an hour before dusk on Saturday with two friends who drove separately.  (Our friends had arrived earlier, were on a different trail.  We discovered the following morning that they became engaged during that hike!)  The refuge was bereft of employees or other visitors–it was all ours to explore.  >100-degree Fahrenheit daytime temperatures had dipped into the high 90s by this time.  It was noticeably more pleasant along the tree-shaded trails.

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The Chachalaca Trail beckons.

I began picking up life birds immediately.  The first was a plain chachalaca near the levee past the visitor center, just inside the refuge.  I’d seen gray-headed chachalacas near Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica in 2013 and speckled chachalacas in the Ecuadorian Amazon earlier this year, but, ironically, the plain chachalaca of my own state was a life bird for me last weekend.

At a branching point for trails, we took the Chachalaca Trail, a lucky choice since it was closed off Sunday during the protest hike.  The air was infused lightly with the scent of sage–blue sage?  It reminded me of my hikes in Southern California.  Mesquite trees and scrub seemed dabbed onto the landscape with a natural watercolor sponge dipped into a dull, light green paint.  We walked among live oaks with cascades of hoary Spanish moss billowing in the wind.  Sabal mexicana palms peeked out here and there.  I heard great kiskadees calling nearby.  (We heard their intermittent calls both days in Santa Ana.)

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While admiring the Spanish moss, my eye meandered over a statue-like Harris’s hawk staring at me.

Harris's hawk at Santa Ana NWR
This Harris’s hawk let us take many great photos.

Flocks of white-winged doves dominated the trees and sky throughout the entire hike.  On our way back to the parking lot, several raucous green jays greeted us.  (I last–and first, in the wild–saw one of these beauties along a trail near Hacienda Chichen, in the Yucatán, in 2015.)  Groups of three or four groove-billed anis–another life bird–clucked melodiously (like a pleasant ringtone) as they hopped from branch to branch at eye level near the trail.  Back at the trailhead, a golden-fronted woodpecker flew onto a nearby tree, staying only long-enough for us to identify it before flying off along the Pintail Lakes Trail–we saw several others of this species Sunday.

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Green jay

Our experience the following morning was very different.  Unlike Saturday’s spiritual experience of the refuge in the absence of other people, the refuge was crawling with them Sunday.  Friendly refuge employees guided us to parking spots as we arrived.  The parking lot filled up well before the scheduled protest.

A white-eyed vireo sang and a white-tipped dove flew overhead as we walked past a naturalist–one of many naturalists, birders, and conservationists there that day–being filmed as he expounded on the importance of the refuge and about the birds he’d already seen that morning.

We met up with our friends, hiked to a large grassy depression that’s a lake in other seasons (there are multiple such seasonal lakes there, with three species of kingfishers and other water-associated birds).  They pointed out olive sparrows to us along the way.  Great egrets and barn swallows occasionally flew overhead.  At one point, I saw at least seven northern rough-winged swallows sitting on a power line.  (We saw southern rough-winged swallows in the cloud forests of Ecuador in June.)  Along this same power line, I later saw a rare olive-sided flycatcher and then a Couch’s kingbird.  Four of these species were life birds for me.

Turkey vultures soared overhead, mourning doves sang unseen, and mockingbirds flew by as we walked to the hawk tower in preparation for the march.  On the way, I saw an Altamira oriole nest–the longest nest of any North American bird, by the largest North American oriole, another South Texas specialty.  It reminded me of the many oropendola nests I saw hanging from trees in Costa Rica and the Amazon.

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Nest of an Altamira oriole.
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Protesters on their way to the hawk tower.

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Nearly an hour later, many more people had accumulated at the hawk tower.  We started our march toward the levee.  Along the way, a naturalist tried to help a large butterfly on the ground grasp his finger and flip right side up while another person watched.  A few large and innumerable small butterflies flew about the refuge–so many, in fact, that we later almost stepped on a couple of them while hiking one of the trails.

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Border wall protesters on the levee where the border wall will be built.

As we stood on the levee in peaceful protest of a wall that could devastate this uniquely beautiful refuge, one of our friends spotted an Altamira oriole looking at us from the forest below.  I quickly snapped a photo of this life bird before it flew off.  Large flocks of red-winged blackbirds rose and fell in the fields opposite the refuge while golden-fronted woodpeckers threaded between the Washingtonia robusta palms.  Beyond them, a stampede of deer escaped an unclear threat.

Altamira oriole
The Altamira oriole, one of several species found in the US only in the Rio Grande Valley.

I appreciate the Santa Ana employees and the organizers of this protest.  I am disappointed by the callousness, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness of our national leaders for threatening to destroy this vulnerable wildlife sanctuary.  I feel that I need to return to Santa Ana many more times, in different seasons, to explore the depths of its complexity; I’ve barely scratched the surface with last weekend’s visit.  However, future visits may not be possible if the border wall goes up at Santa Ana this fall.

If you feel as we do, please contact your senators.

On the Granularity of Wonder, Memories, and Development as a Naturalist

In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows…Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight…Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

A truly open mind is fascinated with and open to exploration of many fields.  Nevertheless, the best and easiest way to refine one’s “wonder mechanism,” I’ve discovered, is to grow as a naturalist.  The endless variety and novelty of nature is compelling, not least because of its unparalleled complexity.

The granularity of one’s wonder mechanism is an important determinant of one’s baseline happiness.  It’s also important in the formation of memories; a finer granularity of wonder results in a richer, more positive set of memories throughout a lifetime.

A coarse granularity of wonder is possessed by this man: “I went on the Circuit de la Grande Chartreuse hike today…The first stretch of forest was…just an ordinary forest, not much more interesting than woods back home. The only spectacular thing was a mountain with two or three peaks between which nestled a…green valley…”

That hard-to-please man was me, twelve years ago, journaling about a solo hike in the beautiful Chartreuse mountains of France.  Not knowing anything about the natural history, geology, or archaeology of that region, I could only appreciate superficial, immediately accessible characteristics:  grand vistas, mountains, valleys, forests.  I remember some of the people I met, but I don’t remember which tree, bird, or insect species I saw, nor which types of rock I encountered, nor did I appreciate the significance of ruins I came across in a valley during that hike.  That leaves me with only a shallow impression of that experience.

A finer granularity of wonder is possessed by this man:  “A grass-like mantis was on the floor outside my home today.  I chased it with my finger toward a wall so it wouldn’t be crushed by an unaware passerby.  It didn’t let me touch it; at each near-touch or rare ephemeral touch, it ran forward, at one point flying smoothly up to the wall as if running along an invisible ramp.”

That was also me, journaling this week about an interesting insect species I’d never seen (or noticed) before 2017.  I’ve seen it intermittently all summer long in a space about twenty feet by six feet.

Here’s another recent journal entry:  “I also did see and photograph a wood stork soaring–it soared over the exact area (vast marsh with adjacent picnic park) where I saw the last male painted bunting of the day!  They showed up at the same time, presenting an observational/photographic dilemma.  I’ve never seen a wood stork before, as far as I know; this is a life bird.”

Twelve years ago, I had little interest in that marsh, precisely because I didn’t know much about it.  Not only did I have little interest, I actively wanted to keep my distance because it’s surrounded by oil refineries:

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However, it is here that I first saw a wood stork, a species not easily seen in the US outside of Florida and parts of Louisiana.  I also saw a male painted bunting here recently–another life bird for me.

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Each experience of wonder creates a pleasant memory.  No grand vistas required.  This humble, likely polluted marsh is now elevated in my mind to a new significance.

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One of the better photos I was able to take of this painted bunting.

“A special power of observing and remembering particulars, a special memory for places, allied to a love, a lyrical feeling for nature, is characteristic of this naturalist’s sort of mind.” – Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal, 2002

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Cotinga Trail, Yasuní National Park

For those without a naturalist bent, the lowland tropical jungle–as seen in the photograph I took this summer in Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, above–is a gloomy, menacing, tediously green place.  One does not bask there in breathless views on par with those found in Yosemite, the Canadian Rockies, or similar places with awe-inspiring landscapes.  The biodiversity, however, remains unmatched…for those prepared to appreciate it.

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Golden-mantled tamarins we observed near Napo Wildlife Center. They live in a very small area in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon and are threatened by deforestation.

It may be obvious that preparation increases appreciation, but this is particularly true of nature travel in the neotropics, where the rare is commonplace, the commonplace is rare, and where each bit of background knowledge yields outsized rewards for the observer.

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Masked crimson tanager seen along Lake Anangucocha. This is one of my favorite tanager species.

One of our guides–who has worked as a generalist guide as well as a specialist birding guide in the Amazon, the cloud forests, the Galápagos, and elsewhere in Ecuador–confirmed my suspicion that birders seem to get more out of their Amazon experience than do non-naturalist visitors.  We ended up seeing or hearing 325 bird species total in the Chocó region of northwest Ecuador and Yasuní National Park.  We also saw a tayra, two black caiman, agoutis, several giant river otters, five monkey species (including five common woolly monkeys, which are not common at all), several puma and tapir tracks, and two electric eels.

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Our guides spotted this collared puffbird along the Cotinga Trail!  Puffbirds, being sedentary, are notoriously difficult to notice.

Each of these sightings, for me, is pegged to a wondrous memory, in addition to memories of all the people we interacted with during the trip–our hosts, our guides, our drivers, and everyone else–and to memories of a more standardized nature: landmarks, street scenes, cityscapes, historical buildings, food, etc.

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Ecuador poison frog.  Poison frogs have little to fear, so these tiny amphibians can be seen boldly displaying themselves in the open.
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Scarlet macaw drinking at a clay lick in Yasuní National Park. This is the only bird that flew down to the clay lick during the hour we were there.

“It is similar with Tom Morgan–he remembers, I think, every fern of significance he has ever seen, and not only remembers it, but exactly where it was located.” – Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal, 2002

I still have a long way to go as a naturalist and as a learner in general.  I look forward to learning much more botany, entomology, geology, anthropology, archaeology, and other fields.

An Irruption of Neotropical Songbirds

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Male scarlet tanager photographed by Christine Casas at Boy Scout Woods on 4/29/17.

“For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.” – Evelyn Underhill

Last Sunday, my girlfriend, two friends, and I had a remarkable experience in High Island, TX:  a quiet Sunday morning hike in coastal woods slowly transitioned from seeming “birdlessness” to finding ourselves literally surrounded by tens of migrant bird species just-arrived from Central and South America.  It felt like a Big Bang of birdlife; it felt as though God had just decreed, let there be birds.  We were in the midst of a “fallout” of songbirds precipitated by a storm the night before and by abatement of the south wind that had previously allowed them to skip the island entirely.

At Boy Scout Woods (BSW), the warblers trickled in slowly at first.  We saw male birds almost exclusively the entire weekend–in many species, males migrate first–indicating that females may be seen in the next week or two.  A hooded warbler started the show by appearing suddenly at Prothonotary Pond, then a magnolia warbler and a northern waterthrush became visible.  Soon, the treetops were alive with black-throated green warblers.  Occasionally found solo, but usually in mixed flocks, we eventually saw bay-breasted, Tennessee, Canada, Nashville, and chestnut-sided warblers, as well as American redstarts and a common yellow-throat, punctuated by sightings of other species:  a peregrine falcon and a broad-winged hawk flying inland, a green heron at Prothonotary Pond, an immature orchard oriole singing far beyond the boardwalk.

Sighting a warbler–a tiny, quiet bird constantly on the move–or any other “new” bird is quite thrilling, even addictive: one raises one’s binocular in eager anticipation of identifying the species before the bird moves out of view.

By noon, in the small parking lot and adjacent street alone, in the span of fifteen minutes, I saw four male indigo buntings, at least four female indigo buntings, male and female summer tanagers, innumerable black-throated green warblers, two male Baltimore orioles, a male rose-breasted grosbeak, and a male scarlet tanager.  Soon after my girlfriend and I left for Smith Oaks, our friends saw a male painted bunting in the parking lot.  Very few of these birds will stay for the summer; most will radiate to their breeding grounds in the northeastern US and Canada.  (In fact, when I returned to High Island today, I only saw two of the above species at BSW: the rest may already be at their summer homes.)

At Smith Oaks, where I hiked for about an hour last weekend, I saw numerous male and female Baltimore orioles, summer and scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, a black-billed cuckoo (we saw a yellow-billed the day before at BSW), a brief flash identified by others as a vagrant black-whiskered vireo, and, at water drips in the forest, males in breeding plumage of the following warbler species: Blackburnian, Magnolia, Tennessee (unclear if male), chestnut-sided, American redstart.  So many species observed in so little time amongst the lovely old oaks and other trees!  (The birding was so good this week along the upper Texas coast that even I–a casual birder who doesn’t aim to maximize the number of species seen, unlike more “muscular” birders–ended up seeing sixteen warbler species, including the rare golden-winged warbler.)  A short walk away, the famous High Island rookery teemed with nesting wetland species we observed and photographed the day before:  roseate spoonbills, purple gallinules, common gallinules feeding with their chicks, neotropic cormorants, great egrets, snowy egrets, and other species.  Down the road, Bolivar Flats–we didn’t go there this trip–hosted numerous shorebird species, including (rumor had it) red knots and piping plovers, the latter of which I saw in February on a birding trip with two other friends.

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Such irruptions of songbirds and other bird species are a rare occurrence for the occasional visitor to High Island, but do occur with some frequency during spring migration, especially following storms or when there’s a north wind.  However, I’ve met serious birders who have visited High Island for years without experiencing such a “fallout” of birds.

We met many other birders while there, including the ever-helpful and enthusiastic Houston Audubon Society volunteers who manage High Island’s nature sanctuaries.  It was a joy to help others see the birds we saw and to allow them to help us see what they were seeing.  Birders are a diverse bunch:  while many were casual, some were very professional, taking high-quality photographs of the birds they encountered.  Most birders are warm, engaging, and helpful people; I was surprised to find that a few were rather cold and businesslike and seemed to be there just to lengthen their lists of species seen.

I visited High Island for the first time about nine years ago.  Since then, I’ve unintentionally built up a store of happy memories associated with this tiny, unassuming salt dome in the Texas backcountry.  One of my first visits was with my friends, Jeff and Noam.  On that trip, we serendipitously chanced upon the Texas Birding Classic.  We were seen as “rare birds” by Texas Parks & Wildlife for being young men out birding–this was even rarer then than it is today–and were interviewed on the spot, had many photos taken of us, and were given free T-shirts (I still wear it; a songbird is displayed on the front with “Portable Audio Device” written under it).

A year ago, serendipity struck again:  I found one of those photos while hiking Lost Maples State Park!  At the end of a long hike, my girlfriend rested by a bird blind while I went to get the car.  When I returned, she recommended I check it out.  I glanced at the sign in front of the blind and immediately saw myself in a photo taken with a Texas Parks & Wildlife staff member that day I birded High Island with Jeff and Noam nine years ago:

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Birding on the Run

Birding was the original Pokémon Go.  As with any activity that increases your appreciation of the world around you, becoming a birder can add more depth and meaning to your life.  My favorite way to bird in the Houston area is while jogging–I see the greatest number of species during my long runs.  When I lived in San Diego, I also liked to bird while cycling through the canyons and mesas there.  (In fact, unbeknownst to me for years, I routinely cycled past endangered California gnatcatchers.) The best way to see many bird species in one day, besides going to the zoo, is to not stay in one place outdoors: move around to many places, and try to bird around dawn or dusk if possible.

I’ve seen many overwintering species in the Houston area in the past month.  On December 4–a cold, rainy day–I took one of my compact binoculars (an inexpensive Olympus Tracker 8×25 PC I) on my long run and serendipitously encountered the first bald eagle I’ve ever seen in Houston!  Since then, I’ve continued to see many migrant species:  on Christmas day alone, I saw ospreys, a small fleet of American white pelicans soaring over the bayou, a flock of cedar waxwings, herons (tricolored, little blue, great blue), great egrets, a belted kingfisher, hawks (red-tailed, red-shouldered, immature Cooper’s), Eastern bluebirds, Eastern phoebes, a flock of “myrtle” yellow-rumped warblers, an immature white ibis, a blue-winged duck or ring-necked duck, two crested caracaras along the median of a road (these were seen while driving), Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and more!

If you own wild land, seriously consider not developing it.  If you own developed land, seriously consider de-developing it.  I, for one, would gladly pay an entry fee to spend some time in the serenity of a local wilderness instead of, say, paying a fee to plop down in a large theater for some escapism or going for a walk in the concrete jungle of the typical modern American city.

The following are photos I’ve taken with a smartphone and my entry-level spotting scope of some of the animals I’ve seen recently.  In order, they are a great blue heron, osprey, female belted kingfisher, and white-tailed buck.

Update 1/2/17: I added photos I took on New Year’s Day of a juvenile brown pelican and of an immature Cooper’s hawk.  The pelican preened itself while I photographed it and the Cooper’s hawk remained nonchalant as I took photos from a few feet away.  A tiny ruby-crowned kinglet, perhaps emboldened by my presence, chirped at it with curiosity from a branch directly over my head.  Ten minutes later, the hawk suddenly, explosively bolted off the branch, gliding mere inches above the paved street for half a block before suddenly sweeping itself up onto the slanted trunk of another tree, wings folding so quickly that it might as well have teleported.

The birding smorgasbord continues:  before I even left home to bird, I heard and then saw a large flock of Brewer’s blackbirds congregating in the trees beyond my living room’s windows.  At the bayou, I spotted an osprey atop a dead tree in the distance, eating a fish it had caught while flocks of cormorants criss-crossed the sky and a tireless, immature Forster’s tern circled and dived in front of me for food, not stopping to rest at all in the forty-five minutes I was there, and even feistily chasing away other terns as they entered its territory.

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The many ospreys I’ve seen recently remind me of one of the first I ever saw: on January 11, 2013, I saw the following osprey and took photos of it before my run + hike at the salt marsh adjoining Torrey Pines State Reserve in La Jolla, CA.  Two hours later, when I returned, it was circling and then dived and caught a fish! Luckily, I had my camera out and managed to photograph the entire sequence:

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Building a Simple Life Compass

In March, I wrote about creating a life plan using Hyatt’s and Harkavy’s Living Forward.  Creating my own life plan helped clarify many things.  By writing down and assessing each “Life Account” (e.g., Spiritual, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Vocational, etc.), I built a dynamic map of my life.  However, I found that “activity creep” continued to be a problem because I focused on some accounts more often than others.  (E.g., I tend to pack in more and more concrete activities each day, which means the “Spiritual” account was relatively neglected.)  I also didn’t refer to my life plan very often, because, simple as it is, it is still too unwieldy.  Time management strategies are often ineffective.

Recently, I realized that I need a concise, effective “life compass.”  Instead of slogging through some burdensome time management system, a simple life compass could guide me on an intuitive level.  So, I sat down and created one.  I already feel much better for it; simpler is pretty much always better as far as time management is concerned.  This is how I built my compass:

  1. Identify and list in rank-order the activities that make you feel most alive.  E.g., playing board games with family members ≥ hanging out with close friends > practicing medicine > hiking = birding > drawing = painting, etc.
  2. Group similar activities into categories, then rank-order the categories.  These categories are your values.  E.g., spending time with loved ones > helping others > spending time in nature > being creative, etc.
  3. Try to spend more time doing activities in categories you care more about and less time doing activities in categories you care less about.
  4. Massively increase the quality of your day with “slow time”:
    • Get enough sleep.
    • Meditate daily, preferably in the morning.
    • Consider practicing some basic yoga in the evening.
    • Allow yourself a slow morning before work.
    • Allow yourself a slow winding-down period before sleep.

Note that the quality of one’s life compass depends on the breadth of one’s prior life experiences:  a broader set of experiences will yield a higher-quality life compass.  One’s life compass should also be “recalibrated” every once in a while.

What do you think of this simple life compass?  Do you have a similar strategy to keep yourself aligned with what matters most to you?

On Being a Picky Consumer, or When Hype Outweighs Value

I’m very picky about which films I watch, which books I read, and which games I play.  If I realize I don’t care for a movie as it’s unfolding, I’ll try to walk out of the theater immediately.  I may have lost a few dollars, but I’ll never get that time back.

Consequently, I don’t consume much.*  I’d much rather spend my limited time with loved ones, in nature, solving problems (usually others’ problems, since I’m a physician), or being creative.  It’s even better when I can combine what I most enjoy doing.

When I do consume films or books–and this holds true especially for fiction–I want the story to be interestingly, or at least realistically, complex.  Which brings me to watching Moana, the recent animated film by Disney.  I’m embarrassed to say that I chose to see it because it garnered great reviews.  Sadly, after seeing it, my opinion sides with the few negative reviewers.  The film reminds me of why I much prefer Pixar’s animated films–which are usually fresh, clever, and appeal on multiple levels–to Disney’s.  I’m fairly certain I don’t ever want to see another Disney film again; Moana is the final nail in the Disney coffin, as far as I’m concerned.  The only positive things about the movie from my standpoint are the gorgeous visuals, the celebration of Polynesian culture, and that it features a strong female protagonist throughout.

Warning: spoilers below!

The cartoon short presented right before the film was Inner Workings.  Inner Workings portrays a man who lives in Southern California and who goes to work every day at the firm, “Boring, Boring, and Glum”.  The cartoon presents a lot of tension between the man’s fearful brain (closed to new experiences out of fear) and his enthusiastic, open heart which longs for new experiences.  During his surfside walk to work every day, he passes by a breakfast place that offers a meal of pancakes, sausage or bacon, and eggs, which his “heart” craves, but his brain reasons that this will lead to weight gain and an eventual death by myocardial infarction.  So, he keeps walking toward his firm.  Similarly, he passes by a surfer and craves surfing but passes it up because his brain reasons that he might be killed by a shark.  And so on.

When he finally gets to work, he goes through stacks of paper and types monotonously along with a legion of similar zombie coworkers.  At lunchtime, his despondency reaches a critical low, whereupon his brain lets go of the hold on his heart and allows him to go to the pancake shop.  After having breakfast for lunch, he tiptoes into the surf, a wave crashes onto him, completely soaking his work clothes.  He then gets new sunglasses from a girl selling them at a beachside stall.  He goes back to work, soaked in ocean water and covered in sand, and then starts working with a dance beat, whereupon everyone else joins in and starts dancing, too.  Later, he marries the girl who sold him the shades.

Inner Workings imparts a few lessons.  The first is the adage, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Another is that it’s important to take some risks, to not live strictly guided by fear.  The last is that Southern California is a fun place.  Fair enough.

Since I actually did live in Southern California for four years, worked at a hospital in a coveted location (La Jolla), and lived less than ten minutes from Torrey Pines Beach by car, I feel I can say something more about this sketch.  Let me just tell you that a particularly uncomfortable physical sensation is that of walking around with your plainclothes waterlogged by the salty ocean and covered with sand.

On to Moana, a movie with the segmented plot structure of a bad action-adventure video game.  It reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which also has a plotline on rails.  (I made the same poor decision in purchasing Twilight Princess, years ago, as I did in choosing to watch Moana: I took note of the many positive reviews, didn’t pay attention to Jeff Gerstmann’s “heretically” negative review of the game for its lack of innovation–he was reportedly later fired from GameSpot for his unique opinions on games–and dived in, remembering my love of the puzzles in the previous games.  I later regretted it.)

In Moana, there’s a prelude (just as in Legend of Zelda games) that gives us important background information, followed by an opening in which the eponymous protagonist is “chosen” by the ocean, which gives her a jade amulet that needs to be returned to a stereotypically dangerous place in order to save the world.  After the opening (her childhood), she undertakes a couple of subquests (find Maui the legendary demigod, then find Maui’s hook).  This involves a couple of “boss battles,” just like a Zelda game.  After she collects everything she needs, and has learned to sail, it’s off to the dangerous final plot location guarded by the stereotypically toughest “boss.”  (Yawn.)  She’s rebuffed, reaches a low point, Maui leaves her, but then her late grandmother arrives and gives her a pep talk. So, off she goes again to the dangerous final location.  This time, she pulls some tricks that would do well in any action-adventure video game from ~1998 onward and ends up fulfilling her destiny.

Moana is the “Chosen One.”  She tells us so multiple times, but the plot also directly and indirectly reinforces her pathological egocentrism throughout the film.  Moana is clearly the only innovator in her tribe, which the movie presents as a recurring problem until she is allowed to innovate by sailing beyond the reef, saving the world (yes!), and returning to have her actions validated by her people.  She suffers from the same symptomatology as other Disney protagonists:  her privileged life isn’t good enough for her; she longs for something more; she’s fond of passionate, impulsive decision-making; etc.  There are no serious consequences for any of her ill-thought-out decisions, including sailing out onto the ocean alone at age eight on a raft.

That the movie affirms and validates these undesirable traits and actions also means that this is a movie that I would not want any children to see.  Validation of egocentrism is damaging and dangerous because it supports a worldview in which those who are not key decision-makers are expendable.  Anyone who has tried to run a clinic, or a business, or any other enterprise larger than himself has quickly realized how important everybody is (schedulers, phlebotomists, medical assistants, physicians, etc.).  Researchers may produce new treatments that greatly help some segments of the population, but with a broken healthcare system, everyone suffers.  In real life, maintainers are often more important than innovators.  The greatest irony of Moana is the protagonist’s final triumph, which occurs during some of the final scenes of the film:  after reuniting with her pet pig, Moana gets her people back into sailing, exploring, and presumably, colonizing.  The Polynesians and many other early human societies were responsible for extinctions of vulnerable species (especially those that lived on islands), partly through introduced fauna (pigs, cats, dogs) that destroyed fragile ecosystems, to say nothing of more-developed societies that later waged imperialism to create wealth while destroying weaker civilizations.

As stated earlier, the plot is almost entirely on rails.  Moana is destined to save the world.  Therefore, nearly every time Moana falls into the water, the ocean *itself* saves her and plops her right back onto the raft.  (This reinforces Moana’s specialness, especially because the ocean allowed her father’s friend to drown.)  The plot progresses almost magically from scene to scene, with plot devices so ridiculously serendipitous that the characters rarely have to break a sweat in the brains department.

Beyond the vapidity of the plot devices, and almost as ironic counterpoint, the movie features the worst comic relief I’ve ever seen:  a jungle fowl or rooster so flamboyantly dumb that it repeatedly walks straight into the ocean when it isn’t pacing back and forth–changing direction only when it runs into an obstacle in its makeshift cage on the raft.  Basically a glorified drinking bird toy, it doesn’t even try to save itself from drowning once it is actually in the water.  The ocean itself saved this poor chicken multiple times.

The rest of the characters were also one-dimensional:  Moana’s character never develops beyond being the “Chosen One.”  Her father’s character doesn’t develop significantly beyond his recurring refrain of, “The ocean is dangerous.  Don’t go beyond the reef!” (Though he does eat his words in the end.)  In fact, multiple characters–Moana, her grandmother, and her father–essentially repeat the same lines in different ways throughout the film.  Maui is represented in the movie as an abusive, wisecracking demigod, particularly frustrating for his nearly impenetrable narcissism.

I prefer it when a film presents real, potentially dangerous stakes, but then it presents characters clever enough to navigate the dangers successfully instead of being given implausible breaks time and again (much less, actually being saved by the dangers around them).  This is one reason I love Studio Ghibli films.  If a cartoon doesn’t do this, perhaps to cater to kids, then it should at least have brilliant layers of humor.  Compare most Pixar films to almost any Disney film, for example.

A note on Zelda games:  I loved the first several Zelda games (up to Ocarina of Time), because they were hard, brittle games.  They didn’t pander to the player.  They weren’t guided journeys.  Life is also hard and brittle in many ways.  Good guidance is difficult to find. Many mistakes in life are serious and cannot be recovered from.  So, when the Zelda games reached such a level of popularity that Nintendo started designing them to pander to everybody, transforming them into guided tours devoid of difficulty or a memorable story, I bailed.

I like chess because it teaches a sense of responsibility for one’s actions–if you make too many bad moves, you lose.  It’s nowhere near a perfect analogy for life, but it is analogous to some aspects of life:  early advantages are important for later success.  Even a won position can be lost by carelessness.  Chess is brittle.  Life is brittle.  Think well.

In summary the lesson I learned from seeing Moana is that I really should continue to get movie recommendations from close friends instead of getting them from review sites.**  Close friends know me best, and we’re close because we’re similar in important ways.  Therefore, their advice should carry greater weight than that of a critic I don’t personally know.  That said, one ends up following the work of like-minded critics after a while, too.  For example, I could predict what Roger Ebert, Jeff Gerstmann, and Greg Kasavin would like and what they wouldn’t, since I read so many of their reviews back in the day.  (Thankfully, this is a habit I’ve long since discarded, because I watched hardly any of the movies and didn’t play the games.)

*Recently, I really enjoyed On the Move, an autobiography by Oliver Sacks; Virunga, a remarkable documentary about the eponymous national park of the Congo; and The Dark Horse, a powerful character study of Genesis Potini, the brilliant Māori chess player.  As far as video games go, I haven’t played them seriously in many years, and I don’t feel worse off for that.  I’m learning chess right now, because it’s so much more interesting to me than other games I’ve experienced.

**For news, my first rule is to minimize exposure to it.  My second rule is syntopical reading:  I try to read high-quality news from all sides to achieve the most objective/accurate viewpoints.  I especially prefer independent news.