Monday, October 27, 2008

Who IS Joe the Plumber anyway?

I am Joe the Plumber...Really!

This blog submission will not be politically slanted... I swear. It's really intended to deflate some stereotypical beliefs and to serve as an affirmation of a few little-known details regarding a handful of tradespeople, that don't fit a standard template. If you have read my bloggy little thoughts in the past, you'll no doubt already have a pretty good idea what's inside my head. For the rest of you who accidentally stumbled into this environment, sorry but you'll catch on fast.

Yes, it's true that I am a Master plumber and have been plumbing (with yes, an actual license) since 1980. I do not own my own business now (or yet), but worked for a family business for 17 years. During that time working closely with my father and mother, I learned what hard work, persistence, and steadfastness to the cause were all about. If the work was slow, the paychecks were slim. If the customers did not pay, the business received no money, but employees and Uncle Sam still got theirs. Hours spent on the phone pleading for a payment from Mrs. Smiths and Mr. Jones taught me that people will accept a pay-as-you-go plan if offered; thank you very much, and the priority for actually paying off a bill for a potty repair, easily falls from their radar when compared to a week's worth of groceries. (Which by the way, they paid for 100%, before leaving the store.) Seeing the working world from this angle provided me with a unique opportunity for balance, when (after moving to the "big city," and learning "how we do things here") I joined the "Local" in 1988. Money was instantly better and work was plentiful, but it didn't take long to see that ALL workers (no matter what their abilties, attitude or work ethic) are treated as a group, no matter what. Remembering that these men and women were all licensed by the State and may have had different strengths and weaknesses, didn't matter to the "contract" signed by their employers. I could see how this union of the trades, was a powerful tool for leveling out the playing field for all workers due to their affilation with it. Everyone moved along at the same pace, same economic benefit, same paycheck amounts right? No. Contractors somehow found a way to reward their star performers. Those that shined brighter were compensated at a different level than their "brothers" who just showed up, mailed it in, whatever. That's Not Fair right? (FYI: the "contract" was only a "minimum" required amount.) I thought we were all "equal" here...well, I was not complaining as I was one that was being "over compensated" for my ability and attitude, but some were definitely hacked off. After all, equity for all right?

Why bring this up B-Stud? Well, just know that no matter what economic system is created to artificially balance or equalize everyone by rules, laws, "fairness" or by contract; hard work, persistence, and steadfastness to the cause, still motivates some "Joe the Plumbers" to want, and achieve more than the next plumber. It's just human nature (for some) right?

Well, it is for THIS "Joe the Plumber"/husband/birdwatcher/balloon animal-tyer/gardener/House-watcher/volunteer/website author/blogger/Dad.

So, the only thing I will say political is, VOTE. Vote your choice, vote your heart, vote your future, but do vote. (or just be quiet, once the winner is chosen, and accept your contract.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What Are YOU Waiting For?

Life is short, and a positive sustained run in the stock market is much, much shorter.

The way the markets have been plunging lately, making that ugly sucking sound as you watch your future earnings disappearing, tends to give one pause. It should also sound the alarm clock in your head to wake up and smell the (high-priced) coffee. Just when you thought it was safe to dream of retirement, pulling the pin, heading for a warmer climate, the welcome mat to your Winnebago was jerked out from under you, forcing you to get up, dust yourself off, and park it in the storage garage for a few years of recovery. What might this be telling you? Well, one lesson to be learned is that it's not ever good to hold off doing the things you love now, until that "someday" when you "have the time, and money" to do so. You may never get the chance if you wait. (Oh, and it's OK with your kids to have some fun now...I checked.)

This theme has been visited in the past by those far more egg-headed than the B-Stud. Take for instance, "More Ice-cream Less Beans" by Brian Andrew published in 1996. This book basically tells the reader to skip the boring main course and get to the dessert. My 47 year-old take on the whole thing is much simpler; Live it up and quit moping around, just smell the roses, notice things on the ground, look at people in a brand new way, watch what they do, listen what they say. Find your niche' and flourish in it!

To tie this mantra for living into this format of Birds and Blogs; Go Birding NOW and don't wait for the someday that may never come. Heck birds don't care if you have $100K in your portfolio or cobwebs anyway, and they are much more interesting than staring at a spreadsheet.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The 2008 BWD Big Sit

Appreciating all things avian was the goal of the day.

It was still dark as I pulled the white Dodge Dakota pickup into one of the parking spaces in the lot at Havenwoods State Forest. The air was crisp and moist on this autumn Sunday, October 12, 2008. I loaded up the wheeled folding wire cart with all the equipment I felt I would need for the day. Muffled strains of distant traffic noise could be heard along with the chirruping of crickets as I slowly dragged it to the paved road to the north of the building. The road abruptly ended about 1000 yards from the lot and I was forced to double back slightly to locate the dimly lit mown grass path. Two large rocks had been rolled in place just off the pavement to adequately discourage motorists from attempting egress. It was here that I left the hard navigable surface for the uneven footpath into the woods. Walking slowly through the wet grass as to not stumble or dump my load, I moved deeper into the forest quietly slipping through the ground fog. I was heading for a place I had scoped out a few weeks back where I imagined I would have a variety of habitats in which to scan. As I neared the rust-colored metal arching bridge over Lincoln Creek, I glanced to my left and stopped in my tracks. Through the dim moonlight on the surface of the small ½ acre pond lying 200 yards away and below the trail where I stood, floated hundreds of dark shapes. I was mesmerized. What were they and should I just stop here? Because I was the only one who was likely to participate in this particular Big Sit today, I made an executive decision to create my virtual 17 foot circle right here, forsaking the area I had imagined myself inhabiting for the day. I pulled the cart off the trail towards the treated wood Boy Scout Eagle project bench that was thoughtfully positioned overlooking the water and waited. 

Carefully removing the contents of the cart, I unpacked a few things in order to get to my Bushnells. As I raised them to my eyes and turned to the shapes on the silvery pond, I was startled by a noise behind me. Hhhphhhhh…Hhhphhhhh! arose from the direction of the bridge abutment on my side of the creek bed. I froze. Hhhphhhhh…. Hhhphhhhh! the sound repeated itself. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I turned to face the bridge. Hhhphhhhh…Hhhphhhhh! The only thing that helped me stand my ground and not bolt from the area was a memory from my days as a deer hunter raising the possibility that a Whitetail may be just below the ridge and had caught my scent. I chuckled to myself wondering what I may have done had I not considered this possibility as I walked though the darkness to the bridge to investigate, hoping I was right. Now, having viewed more than my share of slasher movies while practically screaming at the screen for the lead character to not go into the darkened room, I vaguely wondered why I has not taking my own advice. Perhaps the slight crackling noise of my approach on the gravel near the start of the bridge may have spooked whatever was previously making the sound, as I heard nothing further, nor did I see anything as I peered into the gloom. I turned around and walked back to my bench to await the glow of the impending sunrise. The surrounding woods smelled damp with dew and tendrils of white mist hung mere inches above the fallen leaves. I sat as high as possible on the back edge of the bench with my feet on the seat. Having dressed for the day in olive drab and brown layers I was insulated against the morning’s coolness, and prepared to remove clothing as necessary throughout my 12-hour stint. Perched as I was on 2” of treated pine, Bushnells in hand staring out at the pond, I reached beside me to turn on my .mp3 recording device. If there were bird sounds to be heard, I would capture them for reference later.

I sat virtually motionless about 25 minutes watching and listening to the geese on the pond occasionally honk their disapproval at small incoming sorties of visitors. With my backside needing a break from the lumber massage it had been subjected to, I quietly climbed down to stretch. The light from the rising sun cast an orange glow to the distant trees as the world around me brightened ever so slightly. I snapped a few photos of the pond and surrounding scenery catching a glimpse of a Great Blue heron standing stoically amongst the feathered throng that floated nearby it. Small ducks were dipping their heads under water and paddling around like small service boats in a marina. The crickets continued their background soundtrack as I celebrated the growing lightness of the forest. A muskrat dog-paddled its way back and forth to its subterranean home shuttling mouthfuls of succulent reeds while green and bull frogs jumped into the water from the bank. Without warning another group of geese decided that the pond looked inviting and flew in for a quick dip. The honking from the gathered started slow and steady but grew in intensity until suddenly the entire 500 or so Canada geese decided to take flight as a group.

The noise was deafening as they all vocalized and flapped their wings defeating the gravity that held them on the water’s surface and took to the sky, their cacophony fading slowly away to the southwest, as I stood there with my mouth open in awe of the sheer spectacle I had witnessed. “Wow, one in a million,” I said out loud to no one. The ducks hadn’t left but were visibly disturbed and milled around reorganizing their ranks. About two dozen geese (the new comers more than likely) remained in the water honking as if to critique the mass takeoff, and through the pandemonium the Heron had stood unmoving, seemingly unfazed, providing for me a new definition of the word “composure.” Their departure seemed to wake up the balance of the songbirds in the immediate area as they could now be heard warming up their individual parts of the fall dawn chorus to come. Pulling out the drab green soccer-mom chair from its matching nylon condom, I set it up facing the opposite direction from the wooden bench. Finally unscrewing the cover on the blue thermos bottle and pouring myself the first cup of the day, I smiled and picked up my notebook to log in the avian species that had already been a part of my 2008 Bird Watcher’s Digest Big Sit experience.

After making one entire slow clockwise tour of the pond’s shallow reedy edge, eating whatever it could spear, agitate, or impale, it waded to the southwest section of the pond near the edge. With two spotting scopes trained on the heron, it stood, sat, dozed, stood, sat, dozed, and preened endlessly for 8 hours within 3 feet of the same pile of rocks. Mallards would occasionally swim up next to it resting on one orange leg, as if to keep it company for a while. This was a definite bonus having it in constant view for the entire day, especially during the doldrums of midday bird watching drought. I alternated chairs, ate a bagel with cream cheese and apple my wife had packed, took photos, logged the occasional species, and even popped open a tin of smoked oysters to celebrate a flock of Eastern Bluebirds that buzzed and chirped around me, before settling down on the steel of the bridge railing. Wife Nola packed-in a lunch of a Subway sub sandwich, chips and a Diet Pepsi around 2:00 PM and EPBWC Treasurer, Julie Ristow joined us shortly after I began eating. (Notice: All shameless product endorsements have been uncompensated for the purposes of inclusion) The two of them watched with me for the afternoon and enjoyed the nearly 80-degree unseasonable weather, reminding me of the cold-wet sit we had endured the year before in Sheboygan. 28 species logged and 12 hours later, I packed up the truck for the return trip, feeling relaxed, happy and grateful for the opportunity to be in nature among its incredible beauty and wonder. Did we (EPBWC) win anything with our 28 bird species sighted? - Nope, but the rewards are endless...

Here’s the complete list in order sighting:

Canada goose
Great Blue heron
White-throated Sparrow
American Robin
Belted Kingfisher
American Goldfinch
Peregrine Falcon
Least Flycatcher
Downy Woodpecker
Red-winged Blackbird
Ring-billed Gull
Blue jay
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Bluebird
House Finch
European Starling
Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker
Gray Catbird
American Crow
Turkey Vulture
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Nighthawk
Mourning Dove

Monday, October 6, 2008

Read any Good Books Lately?

A good guide can make all the difference.

When I go out in the woods looking for birds, I always take along Kenn Kaufman and the Stokes. Well, not really the actual people (however cool that would be) but their birding guides in book form. Sure, you can say, "Look at that birding geek Birdstud, with his camouflage fanny pack strapped on his backside...isn't he a dork?" But, I don't care. There have been too many times in my young amateur birding career where I have needed to consult with those much more knowledgeable than I am. Enter experts, Kenn Kaufman and Don and Lillian Stokes. In my limited experience with field guides, I prefer the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and for Warblers (those energy-filled little, hard to identify beauties) The Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. Both of these books are compact, vibrantly colored, chocked full of information and easy to understand. (I only wish I would have written them.) I mean, any book that asks and answers the burning question of, "What is a Warbler?" gets my vote each time I open the thing. I love to sit and peruse the pages flipping back and forth to compare my field notes with the tell-tale signs noted by the authors, with one caveat to the beginning birder that every book I have picked up will tell you; look at the darn bird for as long as you can making all the (mental notes, at least) notes you can BEFORE you crack the book. Why? From experience I can tell you that you may think you can pick out that new bird from the pages and pages with only a quick look at the actual bird, but as soon as the question of one or two wing bars and were they bright or dull arises, you'll wish you would have done what I suggest. Now, I know the temptation will be there to just "peek" into the book, but don't do it! - Watch that birdie as LONG as you are able, and log all the info you can...then go for it. (Note: you can purchase Kenn's guide online - HERE)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

You Don't Say?

If you keep an open mind, you never know what you'll hear.

The old man had obviously seen me before I saw him. I had been peering though the Bushnells into the underbrush at a Winter Wren when the old man shouted from about 30 yards away, startling me. "Ya seein' anything?" he inquired. I turned around to face the voice. Walking out of the woods on the well worn trail, he came leading a small dog on a leash. His red plaid woolen vest was pulled over a threadbare olive green jacket. The flaps on his battered hat covered his ears, but his hair poked out in crazy angles announcing to the world who was actually in charge of his appearance. The pulling, choking shelter-rescued mutt was also wearing some sort of cover-up around its midsection and was attempting to gain the upper hand in setting the pace of his master's walk. As he neared me I said, "I was looking at a Winter Wren and have just seen a Yellow-rumped Warbler." "Yeah, I seen em' last time me and the dog walked along the river...have ya seen the big red one?" he replied. "Hmmm no." I answered, "but I did see a Red-bellied Woodpecker in that tree, and it's still there," as I pointed upward to a distant tree. "Yup, seen it, the big red one...see it all the time," the old man verified.

Well I mused, this guy must walk along here often, however he sounded like one of those, been there done that, that's nothing new, you young whipper snapper; types, so I was best to just run the old 'respect your elders' drill and keep it short. "You walk through there," the man 's breath came out as a fog in the 45 degree air as he pointed a gnarled finger, past the brush and toward the river, "and you can see the Huron." "No kidding?" and nodded as I responded, clearly over matched here in the avian arena. "Ayuh, seen it a lot of times." said the octogenarian ornithologist as he finally succumbed to the straining canine and allowed himself to be led farther down the path, and out of my sight. "Wow," I chuckled to myself watching his hat dissapear into the woods, "a real Huron right here in Wauwatosa."