{Guest Post} Meera Lee Sethi: Min Vilda Vänner / My Wild Friends

  • Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Photos and stories from the author of Mountainfit 

This is Raymond, the Lund University researcher who heads the great snipe (Gallinago media) project on which I served as a field volunteer. He's holding a female bird we captured in our mist nets on my first night in Sweden. Like all our females, she was measured, banded, and tagged with a radio transmitter that I would use to track her and locate her nest later in the summer. This particular great snipe also has the distinction of being the first live bird I ever handled. I say a little more about her in a chapter called Field Notes from a Lost Lek.

These are the eggs of the great tit (Parus major), a European songbird that's related to North American chickadees. They're extraordinarily beautiful, aren't they? One of the things I got to write down on a data sheet when we checked the observatory's nest boxes was whether the eggs we found were warm or cold, an indication of whether that particular nest was still viable. Varm was a happy word. Kallt was an ache. You can listen to an audio recording of The World's Sweetest Double-Cross, a chapter of the book that's all about checking nest-boxes, here.

One of the Eurasian Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) that lived in the trees behind the observatory trained us—us being that year's volunteers—to leave almonds and pieces of cheese out for it on the windowsill. We started calling him Gustav. These guys go through a molt between summer and fall, growing a dense coat to prepare for the cold winter months; since I took this photo at the end of July, I'm guessing the narrow, pointed ear-tufts you see on Gustav here must have soon grown even thicker and more handsome.

This is a Eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europea) chick. You can see that its feathers are still developing—the waxy coating around each feather shaft that keeps it tightly furled into a "pin" will eventually be preened away, allowing the feather to spread fully. Right now, though, there's still a blood supply running into each pinfeather so that it can grow. We banded this little one just in the nick of time; in a day or two, it and its hatch-mates would have begun fledging, and we'd have had a harder time collecting them from their nest box.

2011 was a peak year for the Norway lemming (Lemmus lemmus) in Scandinavia, and that meant I had fierce, tiny foes shrieking at me from below on every hike. If all you know about these marvelous creatures is the scandalous lie that they commit suicide en masse, or if you'd like to understand what a peak year is like for lemmings—and the effect this has on everyone in their vicinity, including humans—there's a chapter in Mountainfit that's just for you. It's called A Good Lemming Year.

Hello. I am a baby lemming in Meera's hat. I ran across her path when she was hiking back from tracking one afternoon, and was neither fast nor fierce enough to escape being (gently and very briefly) captured. Meera considers her meeting with me one of the highlights of her summer. The feeling was not mutual.

"Unless avian arithmetic aphorisms have lied to me," said a friend after he saw this photograph, "I think that's worth ten in the bush."

You're looking at Lars, the son of one of the observatory's founders, and five common crossbills (Loxia curvirostra), all of which we caught in the same mist net on one banner. They're not rare in the region around the observatory, but they usually fly too high to be trapped, so it was exciting to find these young birds waiting for us when we checked the nets. I don't say much about banding (or ringing) in the book, but I did write quite a detailed explanation of how and why it's done in this blog post.

These beautiful animals are just a few of several hundred thousand domesticated reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) tended by Sweden's indigenous Sami population. During the summer months, the reindeer are allowed to roam free, graze, and breed where they will; sometime in July, their owners begin herding them into corrals to sort and mark the new calves. I met this small flock—there were 15 in total—on the way down from climbing Storsnasen, a mountain near the bird station. I climbed down to meet them, keeping a little to one side in case they didn't want to be disturbed. But they just came on slowly, eating and snuffling and scratching themselves, and staring at me. Eventually they passed by and went on.

This is a male European golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria), one of my very favorite birds in the world. They were my constant companions—if you can call someone a companion who only ever talks to you because they want you to go far, far away—when I was up in the mountains. I think they're handsome, wily, and enchanting, and I wrote about them in a chapter called Being King Solomon. Why is it called that? Ah. You'll see.

I came to know quite a few human animals over there, as well, so I wanted to end with a photograph of one of the world's loveliest people: Jennie. She was completing a Masters in environmental education when I met her, and I took this photograph when I visited her at the Sylarna mountain station where she had a summer job at the time. A tiny fragment of that visit is captured a chapter called Seasonal Plumage.

You can download or purchase Mountainfit here, or pick up a Kindle copy from Amazon.com.

About Meera Lee Sethi

Meera blogs at Dispersal Range and tweets as @gruntleme

Meera Lee Sethi is a curious human being about whom you already know too much. In 1998 Meera moved from Singapore to the U.S. and began falling in love with science slowly and inconveniently, while earning degrees in the humanities. Any errors of fact or judgment here were committed by her; any beauty has been borrowed from the people, land, and birds of Sweden.

Synopsis: In 2011, a tiny bird observatory in far western Sweden found itself hosting its first American volunteer, and Meera Lee Sethi found herself exactly where she wanted to be: watching great snipe court each other under the midnight sun and disturbing lemmings on her way to find a gyrfalcon nest. Mountainfit is an ecological field notebook, a keenly observed natural history of the life that sings from the birches, wheels under the clouds, and scuttles over the peat bogs of the Swedish highlands. And it is a letter, in 21 jewel-like parts, from a well-read and funny friend. Meera's vigorous, graceful prose communicates a wry understanding of how utterly ordinary it is to long for more out of life--and how extraordinary it can feel to trust that longing. Meera's intent was to create a book small enough to fit in your pocket and read on the train to work in the morning. It is that. But it's also large enough to contain a mountain or two.

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