Thursday, August 28, 2014

Swift Fest 2014

What's a chimney swift to do when
 the chimney's entry-proof?
In the last month, I've written about puffins and hummingbirds. Now it's chimney swifts. This blog is for the birds.

Chimney swifts are birds that roost vertically in upright structures like chimneys. But what’s a swift to do when people cap their chimneys? These resilient birds rely on hollow tree trunks, cave walls, cisterns and wells.

The Jonestown, Texas Swift Fest celebrates the chimney swift and its seasonal loyalty to a cistern just off Highway 1431. (Talk about repeat customers!) The festival, complete with music, barbecue, and activities for kids, takes place in late August, before swifts migrate to their winter quarters in South America.

Swifts may mate for life, but they don’t sleep alone. On late summer nights in Jonestown, hundreds of pairs fly into the 19th-century cistern that sits behind the office of Jones & Carter Real Estate.

At Swift Fest 2014, a representative from the Travis Audubon Society counted 440 birds as they entered the cistern. The annual count has ranged from a high of 2400 to a low of 14. (That low count reportedly was due to a cold front that sent swifts to South America ahead of schedule.)

Here’s a YouTube video that shows the birds dropping into the cistern:

It’s wrong to attribute human characteristics to birds, but as I watched the swifts circle the cistern many, many times before dropping into it, I remembered my kids’ resistance to bedtime, which was always strongest in summer. They'd beg to ride their bikes one more time, run through the sprinkler one more time, play catch one more time. I liked to think each additional minute of bike riding tired them out a little more. Did the multiple cistern fly-bys tire out the swifts? I hope so, because one bird's tossing and turning would have messed with a lot of swifts' sleep.

if you're surprised Jonestown celebrates the chimney swift, know that these birds spend the daylight hours foraging for insects, including mosquitos. Any bird that cuts the mosquito population in late summer deserves a party. Go, swifts!

Been to any unusual festivals lately? Details, please.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wild Things

I knew nothing of hummingbirds until I bought a house with an existing feeder.  Because I pictured a bucolic backyard scene dotted with hummers, I couldn’t wait to prepare the sugar-water nectar hummers like.

Google gave me the correct proportion of sugar to water (1 to 4), and I used a bitty funnel to pour the heated-then-cooled mix into a narrow glass container with red plastic ports designed to look like flowers. The flowers are gaudy and scream I’m fake, but hummers like ‘em.

Surprise! If you fill the feeder, the hummingbirds will come. Their aerial exploits and electronic-sounding whirr enthrall me, but I didn’t expect one hummer to dive bomb another to guarantee itself alone time at the feeder. They’re cute but territorial—and require lots of sugar water. Now I’m their bitch.

Faux animals don’t demand regular meals, so I paid a visit to the statue that has long served as my getting-close-to-Austin roadside marker. Ms. Pearl is a squirrel that looms 14-feet high (10 feet of squirrel and four feet of tree stump-like base) outside Berdoll Pecan Candy and Gift Company on Texas Highway 71 West between Bastrop and Austin She may be the world’s sweetest-looking rodent (Sorry, Mickey and Minnie.) with fathomless brown eyes and a pert nose. What’s more, she holds a pecan as if she’s willing to share it with friends and strangers. Hey hummingbirds, there’s a lesson for you! 

I’m still in thrall to my memories of whale-watching and puffin-viewing in Newfoundland last month. (When will I stop yapping about that trip? In a year or two. Maybe.) Sometimes, in the middle of the day and for no reason, I recall the way the puffins cared for their nests and remember whales as gentle giants.

 Critters, real or not, can be entertaining and comforting. Excuse me now while I fix supper for the hummingbirds.

This post is a lame attempt to divert myself from the heart-breaking events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Middle East, and the Ukraine. I couldn’t write about humans today, and might not manage it next week, either.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Look, Ma! No Phone!

Labor Day (A U. S. holiday that honors the achievements of workers) is less than three weeks away.  Unfortunately, many Americans will spend their time off tethered to their jobs via phone, email and texts. That’s too bad because a real break boosts productivity back at work.

Entrepreneur John Roa, who makes a point of mixing travel for business and pleasure, credits time away from his desk with giving him a broader perspective and renewing his energy and focus. 

But don’t take Roa’s anecdotal experience as proof. A recent study by San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman and colleagues shows employees who pursue creative activities outside of work find these activities have a positive effect on job performance. In other words, free-time pursuits like travel, photography, painting, cooking, and so on require and rachet up flexibility, curiosity, and problem-solving ability. 

Still unconvinced? An American Association for the Advancement of Science blog post encourages scientists to get out of the lab and take a vacation to head off burnout and increase productivity and creativity. The post cites a 2006 study that found that “after vacation, less effort expenditure was necessary to fulfill the daily work chores.”

If you’re reluctant to detach from work email on weekends and holidays consider a New Republic article that finds the sixty-hour workweek causes a short uptick (less than a month’s worth) in productivity followed by a decline. Ouch! That decline hurts all of us.

Can’t manage three days off? A break as short as a nap offers benefits. According to Forbes, “. . . research shows that taking a break from work—whether it’s a noontime snooze or a week or two off—makes you more refreshed and productive when you come back.” Wouldn’t you know, though, the Forbes article acknowledges that employers often perceive vacation-taking employees as less dedicated than those who leave their vacation hours on the table. Double ouch! We have to do a better job of showing bosses the value of time off. 

Even if you can’t get to the mountains, beach, or your favorite hangout over Labor Day, let yourself unplug. Who knows, September 2 might be less difficult to face after you’ve had a short but real break.

How do you beat workaday stress? Two-week vacations? Three-day vacations? Staycations? Wine? Whine?