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Book Review: Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution

Book Review_ Abolitionist Socialist Feminism

Book Review: Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution

H. Bradford

6/27/19

An edited version of this post appears in Socialist Action news:

https://socialistaction.org/2019/06/21/books-abolitionist-socialist-feminism/


Zillah Eisenstein, “Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution” (New York, Monthly Review Press: 2019), pp. 160


An astonishing three to five million people participated in the 2017 Women’s March in the United States and this year, 600,000-700,000 people are believed to have participated.  Yet, the Women’s March and in the feminist movement in general has been critiqued for ignoring racism and how the experiences of women of color differ from those of white women. Although women of color were leaders in organizing the Women’s March, the march has been criticized for failing to address racism in signs, leaders, and demands.  Another critique, such as from Alicia Brown a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, was that those who attended the march had neither spoke against nor shown up to protest the racist nature of mass incarceration, unemployment, police violence, and homelessness. The feminist movement today is often criticized as “white feminism” or a movement which fights for middle or upper class white women, only giving lip service to racial issues when it furthers their own goals or image.  A similar critique is sometimes launched at socialists, who are at times accused of sidelining race and gender issues in the interest of class struggle. The substance and meaning of Bernie Sander’s version of socialism is debatable, but he has been accused of color blindness and avoiding of racial issues. For those who associate Sander’s with socialism, it sends the message that race is not important to socialists. Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution by Zillah Eistenstein seeks to remedy of the problem of “white feminism” and color blind socialism by connecting anti-racism, feminism, and socialism.


One important way that the book addresses racism is by centering itself around the voices of people of color.  Although author Zillah Eisenstein is white, she highlights the insights of a large number of antiracist thinkers and activists such as Kimberly Crenshaw, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Frantz Fanon.  Centering the voices and experiences of people of color is important to anti-racist movement building and Eisenstein models this throughout the text. The book itself ceners upon examining multiple oppressions in ways that are inspired from Kimberly Crenshaw’s intersectionality as well as the Black feminist thinking that preceeding it, such as the work of the Combahee River Collective.  The Combahee River Collective argued that “sexism, racism, heterosexism, and capitalism are interlocking systems of oppression that necessitate revolutionary action (p. 57).”  Thus, as the name suggests, Abolitionist Socialist Feminism: Radicalizing the Next Revolution (2019), takes a multifaceted approach to feminism and socialism and is a tool for building a movement which fights against racism, while fighting for workers, women, and other oppressed groups.  The book begins by posing a series of questions meant to provoke deeper thinking about the interconnectedness of racial, class, and gender oppression. These questions are explored throughout the book, though the big idea is that socialism and feminism must be anti-racist, anti-racism needs socialism and feminism, feminism must be socalist, and socialism must be feminist.


While the book offers many insights, there are a few which are particularly important.  Again addressing the issue of white feminism, the book vigorously pursues the important point that white women have been complicit in maintaining white supremacy.  A largely white female jury determined that George Zimmerman was not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. White women historically supported the lynching and castration of Black males.  They also obtained social standing by controlling slaves. Eistenstein also argues that white women helped to get Trump elected, as 53% if white women voted for Trump (with the caveat that half of eligible voters did not vote at all.)  She posits that white women voted for racism and sexism when voting for Trump, who represents misogynoir, a term coined by Paula Moya. Misogynoir is a term to add to the vocabulary of multiple oppressions and is used several times in the book to describe the intersection of sexism and racism.


Another important point made in the book is that the working class is not white and male, nor has the global working class ever been predominantly white and male.  The struggles of workers of color are spotlighted in the book, such as the example of the 2014 fast food strikes, which were led by women of color and the largest to occur in the history of the industry.  Around the world, women engage in paid and unpaid labor and while laboring, have been the victims of rape and murder, such as in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo where women have been killed while gathering wood.  This connection between labor and vulnerability to sexual assault is an important observation, as women are often victim blamed when they are assaulted at work, especially if they are sex workers or work at bars, alone, or on night shifts.  Labor and sexual assault warrants more attention in feminist and socialist circles. While there are many differences in women around the world, labor and experiences of violence is a common experiential thread that binds many of the world’s women.  This leads to another important point, which is that feminism is often predicated upon an imagined “we” of female experience. Eisenstein makes the point that women are both presidents of nations and die in the hundreds of thousands in childbirth. Women are not a heterogeneous group, but do share some similarities, most markedly in their experiences of sexual violence and for many, their expanded role as part of the proletariat.  A third important point is that Black women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. The prison system itself is a continuation of slavery, and the point is made that Sandra Bland had no more rights than she would have had as a slave. Because of the racist nature of the criminal justice system, the answer to crime against women is not punishment but restorative justice.


Despite the many strengths of the book, there are some weaknesses.  For one, the book does not say enough about the solution to prisons.  While it is established that the United States’ criminal justice system violently upholds white supremacy, the question of prisons is not given full attention.  The word “abolition” in the title may suggest prison abolition, though prison abolition, reform, and restorative justice are giving passing attention. Instead, the title of the book refers to the author’s conception of a more revolutionary version of intersectionality.  Abolition as described in the book means “the abolition of white supremacist misogyny and its capitalist nexus alongside the racist misogyny of everyday practices (p. 99)” Abolition is further described as interlocking, revolutionary, radically inclusive, and multilayered.  It challenges white dominance by redistributing white wealth through taxes and reparations, ending white privilege, and calling upon white people to no longer act as deputies of the carceral state. A more revolutionary version of interlocking oppressions is a welcome development, especially when Eisenstein states early on that comrade is a better term than ally or accomplice, which imply distance from a struggle.  However, the book would have been strengthened by offering a bit more on the “what is to be done?” aspect of criminal justice, especially when carceral feminism is the dominant solution to issues of justice for women.


Abolitionism is the theoretical backbone of the text, but the book would be strengthened by expanding the this concept by answering some important questions about the nature of multiple oppressions.  Socialist feminists should have no qualms with the notion that oppressions are interconnected, as Eisenstein posits. She does not believe that these oppressions are bifurcated, or can be examined without examining each.  And, there should be no argument with Eisenstein that these oppressions are a part of capitalism. Yet, the nature of oppression is never quite expanded upon. Yes, it is interconnected, but by what mechanisms, by what origin, and to what end?  Social Reproduction Theory seeks to connect oppression back to the functioning of capitalism and thus would fortify the arguments of the book. A full examination of the topic of social reproduction and intersectionality is beyond the scope of this book review, but a glimpse of what the theory has to offer is made in an article by David McNally and Susan Ferguson (2015) entitled Social Reproduction Beyond Intersectionality.  David McNally and Susan Ferguson argue racism, sexism, homophobia, and other “isms” serve capitalist accumulation and dispossession but not evenly, neatly, or with crude economic determinism.  They state that the ways in which labor power is produced and reproduced exists in a social world that is bound and differentiated by race, nationality, gender, sexuality, age, and so on. These differences serve as determinants for the conditions of production and reproduction.  For instance, McNally and Ferguson use the example of migrants. In the interest of higher profits, labor power is often sourced from outside of wealthier countries such as the United States, where there are higher wages and often better conditions. Some work is less mobile, such as childcare for American families or work within the service industries of the U.S.  Migrants are a cheap labor source to fill this need, but are also vulnerable because they are not afforded the same legal or labor rights. The oppression of migrant workers can be connected to their precarious position within capitalism and the differentiated status that keeps them vulnerable. Thus, the oppression of immigrants intersects race, gender, and class and this oppression can be understood through the mechanism of extracting labor power, their role in social reproduction, and their place in a social world which renders them vulnerable.  Capitalism contains contradictions, unevenness, struggle, and agency, but it fundamentally divides workers from the means of their sustenance (social reproduction) and in doing so, is the totality in which oppressions exist.


A more significant shortcoming is the book’s contradictory message regarding elections.  For example, the book begins with some biographical information about Eisenstein, who has been engaged in anti-racist activism since her childhood in a communist family.  Her family’s principled stance against racism invited hardship in their lives. For instance, she could not buy a prom dress because of a boycott of the segregated department stores in Atlanta and she missed out on visiting a pool because it was unwelcoming to Blacks.  Unfortunately, these immutable principles did not prevent her from voting for Hilary Clinton, which was a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise compelling introductory chapter. Eisenstein correctly describes Hilary Clinton as a neoliberal feminist, beholden to corporate interests, and implicated in her husband’s racist, carceral state.  More could have been said about her role in the State Department. While this critique correctly recognizes Clinton as an accomplice to capitalism and white supremacy, she is still framed as the lesser evil and it is puzzled over why white women voted for Trump over Clinton. The two-party system, like so many things in the lives of women, is a choiceless choice.  Trump is overtly sexist and racist, while Clinton is perhaps less overtly either, but still an agent of U.S. imperialism, which relies on racism and sexism to function. Eisenstein describes how lynching became the electric chair and how the electoral college privileges slave states. She describes how Barack Obama sided with the rule of law in Fergusson after the death of Michael Brown.  She even calls for the formation of a third party and working towards revolution, but, she is unfortunately unable to break from Democrats entirely.


Part of Eistenstein’s unwillingness to break with the Democratic party is perhaps due to Trump exceptionalism.  Trump exceptionalism is the narrative that Donald Trump is uniquely horrible and therefore, voting for the most abhorrent Democrat is preferable to Trump’s unique brand of racist misogyny.   Every Republican is framed as the next worst thing, as it seems like just yesterday when George Bush Jr. was the worst president for being a warmongering, civil liberty defying dolt. Now, he is looked upon favorably by some who critiqued him before.  Understandably, the 2016 election is a central focus on the text. This is an important focus as many of the readers may have been recently radicalized by the election of Trump. The book reasonably tries to make sense of this election. While Trump is no doubt racist and sexist and unique in his crude comments and unabashed narcissism, it seems a bit far to say that Trump is America’s “first white supremacist misogynistic president (p.91).”  It is hard to imagine that Trump’s policies are worse than Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and the fact that at least twelve presidents owned slaves. All presidents have been racist to varying degrees, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans to Bill Clinton’s crime bill. While Trump certainly seems exceptional in his sexist language and behaviors, Nixon was accused of domestic violence, Bill Clinton has been accused of multiple sexual assaults,  Grover Clevland sexually assaulted a woman who later had his child and had her committed to an asylum, and Thomas Jefferson had a family with his slave, Sally Hemings. Trump is terrible and must absolutely be challenged for his racist misogyny, but in the long view of American history, Trump fits right in among the slave holders, war makers, overseers of genocide that have been U.S. presidents. To consider him exceptional gives too much credit to the presidents who came before.  All U.S. presidents serve U.S. power and capital. The two party system is a two headed monster. One head is not better than the other, as both are attached to the body of imperialism. Revolution is possible only with the decapitation of both.


The electoral shortcoming aside, the book is powerfully written and a short, accessible, and important text for socialist, feminist, and anti-racist activists.   Eistenstein makes a vibrant and energizing call for building a revolutionary movement that takes on racism, sexism, and capitalism, but also tackles climate change, environmental racism, LGBTQ rights, Islamophobia, and war.  She boldly states that “resistance is not enough. Reform is not enough. Civil rights are not enough. Women’s rights are not enough. In other words: liberalism and liberal feminism do not work for this moment and never did (p. 127).” Despite the mixed messages about Democrats, she even states that voting is not enough.  She calls upon activists to move beyond moderation and employ a variety of tactics such as building connections between movements, workplace actions, internationalizing movements, mass actions, and visible civil disobedience. Building connections between movements or creating a movement of movements is central to her prescription for social change.  One of her more profound connections is towards the end of the book when she quoted Frantz Fanon, who said: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe (p.129).” She connects this to Eric Garner who said “I can’t breathe,” eleven times before he died. The point is well taken. Activists are called upon to fight relentlessly and courageously, with real solidarity, for a world wherein everyone can catch their breath, be it from police violence, polluted air, or the other suffocating miseries of capitalism.


 

Heather Bradford, 2020 VP Socialist Action

socialistaction2


 

The following is an interview that I did with a blog entitled Third Party Second Bananas, about running for Vice President of the United States in the 2020 election as the candidate for Socialist Action.  Jeff Mackler is our presidential candidate.  This is reprinted from the blog and the link can be found here: https://thirdpartysecondbananas.blogspot.com/2019/06/heather-bradford-2020-vp-social-action.html

 

Heather Bradford, 2020 VP Socialist Action

Heather Bradford is the Vice-Presidential running mate with Jeff Mackler on the Socialist Action ticket for 2020.

The following is from the Socialist Action webpage:

“Heather Bradford, a member of Socialist Action’s National Committee, will be the party’s vice presidential candidate. Bradford is the organizer of Socialist Action’s branch in Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., in the Lake Superior region. Bradford works full time as a women’s advocate at a domestic violence shelter and part time at an abortion clinic and as a substitute public school teacher. She is the secretary of AFSCME Local 3558, a delegate to the Duluth Central Labor body, and a union steward.

She is a founder of the Feminist Justice League, a Duluth-based feminist organization formed in response to the anti-abortion “40 Days for Life” group and an active member of H.O.T.D.I.S.H. Militia, an abortion fundraising group. Bradford has been a long-time activist and participant in the LGBT, environmental, and antiwar movements.”

https://socialistaction.org/2019/05/11/socialist-action-launches-2020-presidential-campaign/

Q: How did you arrive at becoming a member of Socialist Action?

When I was in my early 20s and attending college, my major was International Studies. Through my coursework, I quickly learned that much of the world was impoverished and lacked access to such basic things as food, medicine and clean water. I also learned that global suffering was connected to the policies of organizations such as the IMF, World Trade Organization, and World Bank, which played a role in perpetuating colonial relationships based upon economic exploitation. I also recognized that the United States has played a sinister role in destabilizing countries through war, support of dictatorships, economic coercion, and overthrowing democratically elected governments that leaned towards socialism. The more I learned about the state of the world, the more I saw patterns that indicated a systemic problem and the more I began to identify with socialism. At the time, I believed that socialism had gone extinct as a movement. I believed it was something that must have died off decades ago. But, to my surprise, I found that Duluth had its own socialist group! I sought out the only socialist group in my city, which was Socialist Action, and I have been a member since.

Q: And how did you happen to become the Vice-Presidential nominee?

In February, I was contacted by Jeff Mackler, who is the National Secretary of Socialist Action and our presidential candidate. He asked me if I would be interested in being his running mate in the 2020 election. I took some time to think this over and agreed. His recommendation was then discussed and approved by the Political Committee and later, the National Committee, both of which are the governing bodies of Socialist Action between conventions.

Q: Socialist Action has been described as Trotskyist. Could you explain to us how that makes SA different than other political parties on the Left?

That’s a great question with a lengthy answer! One difference between Socialist Action and some other socialist parties is that we do not provide any support to candidates of the Democratic Party. We call on workers to break with the Democratic Party as we believe it is fundamentally and inevitably a party of the ruling class. As such, it will always promote U.S. imperialism and the immiseration of workers around the world. Our staunch refusal to support the Democratic Party (or any capitalist party, such as the Green Party) differentiates us from some other socialist groups. Though, it is important to note that from time to time, we support the candidates of like minded socialist parties and would support the formation of a Labor Party within the U.S. At the same time, we believe in the right to self-determination for oppressed groups. Therefore, we believe in the right of oppressed groups such as women, LGBT, oppressed racial minorities and nationalies to form autonomous movements to fight for their interests. We believe that the liberation of these oppressed groups is an essential component of working towards socialist revolution, which is itself an important component of our core ideology. We are revolutionary socialists whose aim is the overthrow of capitalism. While working towards the goal of revolution, we support reforms that challenge the structures of oppression inherent to capitalism. Revolution must be international, worker led, and socialist in nature (rather than in stages or in one country). Some socialists agree on some of these principles and not on others or interpret them differently. This is a short answer to what is otherwise a long and complex question.

Q: According to the SA membership handbook, belonging to this party has some pretty strict requirements compared to other political organizations. It looks like in order to sign up you really really must be dedicated and invest some serious time. Does that make it difficult to recruit new members?

We consider ourselves a vanguard party, so we want to recruit people who are dedicated to the goal of socialist revolution and able to adhere to the level of political discipline necessary to function as a united and effective group. I often attend over one hundred and fifty political events or meetings a year and compared to my comrades, I feel like a slacker! We try to recruit people who we meet through our engagement in social movements, so those who enter our orbit are usually already politically active. Dedication is not an issue as much as convincing new contacts of our political platform. In my experience, a major barrier to recruitment for new contacts is our position of class independence from capitalist parties. Lesser evilism is a prevalent narrative that seduces socialists towards the Democratic Party during elections.

Q: Throughout American history I observe progressive groups are presented with an infinity of directions since they are political pioneers (abolitionists, suffragists, socialists, etc.) and as such they have intense disagreements over which direction to go and method to use. I mention this because as I was looking at the background of Socialist Action it seems your party is not immune from this historical pattern, receiving more criticism from the Left than from the Right. What do you think it would take to unite the Leftist political parties?

Leftist political parties can and often do work together in mass movements. Socialist Action believes in forming United Fronts, which allows us to converge with other leftists on issues we can agree upon. Because the two party capitalist electoral system is rigged against us, we don’t think that elections are really where socialists are going to be the most effective. We can make the most impact by building independent movements that put pressure on the political system or economy. Movements for immigrant rights, anti-war, women’s rights, LGBT rights, better wages and working conditions, housing, prison reform or abolition, and so on are arenas were leftists can work together. Of course, leftists come together with their unique histories, rivalries, and perspectives, which can hinder cooperation and movement building. Sometimes fighting also stems from the fatigue and demoralization of the long haul fight against capitalism. But, movement work can bring us together. The formation of a Labor Party would also be a vehicle for smaller socialist parties to collaborate. The militant labor struggle required for the creation of such a party would hopefully draw socialists together.

Q: What do you make of a segment of the working class being dazzled by Trump with what some would call an almost cult-like fervor?

Around 43% of American did not vote in 2016, so, there is a large swath of the U.S. population that was not enamored enough by Trump or Clinton to bother voting. According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating is 40%, which is lower than the average approval rating of 53% for presidents since 1935. Trump certainly appeals to a segment of the population, which represents the failure of the left to effectively organize workers and offer them a meaningful alternative to voting for racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Trump seemed like an outsider and anti-establishment to some voters. I think it is also important to note that racial minorities overwhelmingly did not vote for Trump. The American working class is often imagined as white and male, but racial minorities, women (when including racial minority women), and people with incomes under $50,000 a year did not vote for Trump. The task of socialists is to continue to support the interests and liberation of the most oppressed segments of the working class (women, racial minorities, sexual/gender minorities, etc.), offer real solutions to workers who have been duped by Trump, and fight real and terrifying elements of racism and reaction that have been emboldened by Trump.

Q: The Republican playbook for 2020 appears to be painting the Democrats as “socialist.” I gather from the SA website that even Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are considered as servants of the ruling class rather than the working class?

I think we are entering an age wherein socialism has lost its teeth as an insult. Republicans may have to change the language of their putdowns as socialism becomes increasingly popular. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has done nothing to earn the honor of being called socialist. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez muddy the water a bit by invoking the language of socialism, without really clarifying what precisely this means. As you recall, I became a socialist through internationalism. Socialism means standing against imperialism, which is characterized by the international dominance of monopoly and financial capitalism of a few powerful countries. It is the duty of socialists to stand against U.S. power as an expression of imperialism. At the same time, socialism should be international. How could any socialist, which is a movement based upon the power and liberation of workers, tolerate wars or foreign policies which harm other workers? Yet, Bernie Sanders has supported U.S. foreign policy, stated that he wants a strong military, has approved U.S. military spending, and supports U.S. wars, such as in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez sent mixed messages about U.S. intervention in Venezuela. Even if they clarified what they meant by socialism into a cohesive ideology that seeks to end capitalism, the Democratic Party is not the vehicle to accomplish socialism. It is a party that supports U.S. power around the world and ultimately harms workers here and abroad by supporting militarism, financial institutions, corporate interests, and the maintenance of private capital. These things should be anathema to socialists.

Q: Socialist Action has been around for awhile but it was only in 2016, as far as I can tell, that a foray was made into Presidential election politics. Why did it take so long?

Our main strategy and theoretical grounding is to magnify our organizational power by participating in social movements and the labor movement. So, elections are not where we see ourselves making the most impact in society. We are a small party, elections are time consuming and expensive, and not where change is made. However, we recognize that elections are a way to meet new people, expose others to our ideas, and point out contradictions and failures in the political system. Perhaps as our party grows or gains new experiences, we can avail ourselves in elections more often, but this will never be the center of our political work.

Q: How do you plan to conduct your 2020 campaign?

We plan to have a speaking tour through several cities in the East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast, which we hope is a way to meet new people and express our views. Jeff Mackler will be speaking on some panels and to the media and I will try to do some media work myself. We also hope to collect a list of endorsers and regularly publish the list in our newspaper, Socialist Action. Our campaign also includes a social media presence on Facebook and hopefully other platforms as well as literature, stickers, buttons, and other materials. We have a campaign team that is actively strategizing how to get our message out.

Q: In 2016 the SA ticket was not actually on any ballots from I can see. Will that change in 2020? Will there be Socialist Action candidates for other offices?

Our campaign team is looking into this. It would be great to have ballot status in some states. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the region where I am from, this requires around 2,000 signatures. We’ll see what we can do!

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in this campaign and how will you measure your success?

Simply having a campaign at all is a success for me, as it is an opportunity to meet people and discuss socialist politics. Anything that increases the scant attention and understanding of revolutionary socialism in society is a step in the right direction.

Q: I know it is early in the 2020 election season, but has your VP nomination impacted your daily life in any way?

I am a busy person. I work at a domestic violence shelter, often averaging over 40 hours a week. I have had over time on every paycheck since January. I also work at an abortion clinic and as a substitute teacher. In April, I was also a costumed Easter Bunny. So, I am 100% a worker and in addition to this, I am 100% engaged in social movement work. I am especially active in the reproductive rights movement. Running for Vice President adds a large item to my already full plate. It involves conference calls, seeking endorsers, increasing my participation in the party at a national level, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I can be a shy and reserved person, so I am finding that I have to quickly grow in ways I haven’t before. But, I hope this experience develops my leadership skills and my abilities as a revolutionary. I also hope it is a springboard for running for office in more modest and local, but realistic political races. Winning the U.S. presidential election is in no ways a real possibility, of course, but as socialists we believe a better world is possible and are committed to doing everything in our capacity to bring a better world about. I will never be Vice President, but I hope I can play a small role in working towards a world without such things as war, poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration, homophobia, sexism, racism, early death, exploitative work, and climate crisis. To that end, socialism is our best and only solution.

Q: Thank you Heather for participating in this VP project.

Orniscaching?: Birding and Geocaching

 

Orniscaching?: Birding and Geocaching

H. Bradford

4/17/17

This weekend I went on a Feminist Frolic and tried geocaching for the first time.  I downloaded an app to my phone and found one awesome, mushroom shaped cache with our group.  The event was a Cache in Trash out event, so we also collected some garbage from the park as part of the adventure.  It was a fun time.  Although it seems that there is a lot of jargon and rules regarding geocaching, I am eager to continue with this new found hobby.  I think that the best thing about this activity is that it involves spending time outdoors while investigating nature for a hidden world of secret treasures.  I was surprised to see how many caches appeared on the map of Superior.  To think that all this time there have been hidden items all around me!  I also like the collective and individual nature of the activity.   Geocaching creates a sense of community, since many people have visited the same site in pursuit of the same time.  The community is evident by the logbook and online logs about the site.  The activity also builds community since it can be done in groups and appeals to all ages.  As for the individual aspect, it can also be done solo, as I did today.  So, it can feel like an individual quest to follow in the path of many others to a common destination.


After trying the activity for the first time on Saturday, I decided that I would head out on a birding + geocaching adventure.   Adam decided that he was interested in coming along, so we headed to Cloverland, WI to the Roy Johnson Wetlands.  I also wanted to visit the Davidson Windmill to try to find a cache.  So, we set out on an adventure to the rural areas outside of Superior.


Early on, I became quite frustrated.  I soon learned that it is very hard to operate a car, a camera, and the geocaching app on my phone.  I also learned that there is very spotty cellphone reception in that area.   I hadn’t downloaded the maps for geocaching which made this aspect of the adventure impossible.  I was angry at myself, since I wanted to try out my new activity.  I also became angry because I saw various hawks on wires and flying over the farmland.  However, they either flew away before I could identify them or I was unable to stop.  Adam wasn’t keen on the slow driving and stop and go, as he wanted to head to Cloverland.  I was unhappy with trying to juggle driving, birding, and caching.   In any event, I passed up several birds on the way to the Windmill.  Thankfully, my phone sort of worked at the Windmill, but after milling about for 20 minutes, I failed to find the cache.  This was a very bad start to our journey and heralded the end of my attempt to geocache.  Instead, I would focus on birds.


We traveled to Cloverland and went on a short hike, but didn’t spot any birds.  We continued down a dirt road past an old barn, where Adam said he’d seen an owl in the past.  Adam spotted a dark, moving object in a tree near the barn.  This was hopeful!  However, it turned out to be a porcupine.  The porcupine lifted my spirits a bit, and we continued onward.  Our drive did not yield any unusual birds, but we pushed on towards the Roy Johnson Wetlands.


Not far from the wetlands was a trail or narrow road, which ascended a muddy hill.  We hiked up the hill and our luck with birding changed.   The top of the hill featured a small pond with a nesting goose.  The road was flanked by scraggy bushes, where small birds flitted back and forth.  They were too quick for me, but I managed to photograph a robin and a dark eyed junco.  By then, the sun was setting, so our time was limited.  A large hawk flew by, keeping low to the ground as it hugged the curves of the marshy landscape.  I captured a blurry photo of what appeared to be a light gray hawk with a white underside.  I believe that it was a Northern Harrier hawk.  Finally, as we continued a little further down the trail I spotted what looked like a chickadee with a yellow bottom!  Of course, this little bird did not turn around, so I had a hard time determining what it was.  My best guess is that it was a yellow-rumped warbler.   Spotting these two birds redeemed the adventure, though by then I was already over my earlier frustration over my lack of organization and inability to juggle my activities.  I decided that I would try geocaching + birding the next day!

Today, I woke up and realized it was cold and windy out.  This put a damper on my outdoor adventures until the late afternoon.  Once the sun peeked out and the wind seemed less intimidating, I hurried to Park Point…determined to make geocaching and birding work.  I set out alone and on foot, which is the key to balancing these two hobbies.   It also helped that I had cellphone reception.  With my bird books, camera, and phone, I started hiking!  The hike was pleasant and birds were plentiful.  Several birds of prey flew overhead.  However, they were too fast for me to identify.  One was quite large with dark banding under the wings.  I am new at identifying birds, so this usually involves photographing birds and then comparing them to the bird guides.  I admired the birds as they passed by, then continued into the woods.  I spotted a red-breasted nuthatch and then a quick moving bird that bounced from branch to branch and tree to tree.   I spent quite a while observing it, trying to photograph it and commit its features to memory.  The bird had a bright yellow crown and solid white or gray stomach.  Its eyes were masked with a black stripe.  I assumed that it might be some kind of warbler.  There are numerous warblers and I don’t really know how to identify any of them.  However, using the bird guide, it seems that the bird most closely resembled a golden-crowned kinglet.

Near where I spotted the golden-crowned kinglet was a cache.  I looked around, but did not find it.  However, there were several more up the trail, so I continued.  Along the way, I found two caches.  This was great!  But, I failed to find a third cache further up the trail.  As I had a meeting at 5:30 pm, I hurried along, trying to find one more cache before I had to turn around.  I managed to find one more, but failed to find one more for lack of time.  With that, I turned around and hurried back to my car.  The hike back yielded two more birds of prey.  One of them had distinct black wing tips on its underside and a head that was darker gray than the rest of its body.  Its underside appeared to be lightly barred.  I was confused, but I think it may have been another Northern harrier hawk.   Finally, I saw one last bird of prey at the top of a conifer.  It was smaller than the others and of course, hard to see.  I moved around to try to view it from different angles.  It may have been a female merlin, but I can’t know for sure.  I also spotted a common merganser.

Prior to Saturday, I did a little birding at WI Point and Loon’s Foot landing.  Many of the ducks I had seen in the previous weeks have seemingly moved along.  I did capture a picture of a female cardinal though.


In all, it seems that geocaching and birding compliment each other.  In both activities, I am searching for something.  Both have highs and lows.  It is certainly disappointing to miss a cache.  It is also frustrating when I struggle to identify birds as they are too quick or I am just not skilled enough.  However, these struggles make identifying a new bird or finding a cache all the more exciting!    I know that some people do both activities at the same time, but oddly, there is no name for it (that I saw online anyway!).  Since geocaching seems to have developed its own language, I think I will call it orniscaching!

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Bird Nerding Notes: Early April

Bird Nerding Notes: Early April

H. Bradford

4/10/17

I’ve been out quite a bit in the past few weeks in pursuit of birds.  One adventure was with my mother, but I’ve been trying to go out daily for at least some birding.  I’ve checked out Wisconsin Point, the Western Waterfront Trail, and Loons Foot Landing for birds and all three of them have yielded some new birds for my list.  It has been an exciting adventure, as it has helped me to realize all of the birds that are around me that I never really noticed before.  Like I’ve noted before, it is like an endless scavenger hunt.


Wisconsin Point:

My first adventure on Wisconsin Point yielded one new species.  I found some common mergansers close to shore.  Of course, they were quick to swim away, but it was neat to see a new bird.  I visited for several days in a row, noting many common mergansers, even if they were far away from the shore.  Because the birds are pretty shy, it is no wonder that I have never noticed them in all of the years that I have visited Wisconsin point.  Otherwise, a large flock of seagulls had assembled on a sheet of ice, which slowly melted over the course of a week.  I am not experienced enough to identify different species of seagulls, which all look pretty similar to me.  Among the seagulls were some immature bald eagles.

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Western Waterfront Trail:

The Western Waterfront Trail yielded several other species of birds.  Again, the birds were spotted from a distance and only identified by zooming in on the photos I had taken.  I noted a Common golden eye and Hooded merganser while hiking along the trail.  Again, the birds were shy and even though I was quite a distance away from them, they were quick to move along.  I hike on the Western Waterfront Trail dozens of times during the year but have never noticed these birds before.  I hiked the trail later in the week and again spotted a flotilla of these same birds.

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Loon’s Foot Landing:

My best birding has been at Loon’s Foot Landing in Superior.  I have spotted Hooded mergansers, common mergansers, Northern shoveler, pied grebe,  Common goldeneye, bufflehead ducks, Ring necked ducks, green winged teal, and what appeared to be Greater scaup.   These waterfowl seem to enjoy hanging out together in a quiet corner behind some cattails.  It makes photographing them a bit of challenge since they are safely tucked away quite a distance from the trail.  I also saw my first Great blue heron of the season fly overhead.

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Ring-necked duck

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Pied-billed grebes

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Green winged teal, Northern shoveler, and Ring necked duck

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Hooded merganser

Beyond the waterfowl were some interesting passerine birds.   While walking back to my car, I spotted what appeared to be a robin sized bird in the brush near the shore.  I followed the bird, trying to get a closer look.  It was quick and active, but finally slowed down long enough to take a photo.  It turned out to be a fox sparrow, which was pretty neat.  I am slowly learning different kinds of sparrows, which until this year all seemed like ordinary brown birds that didn’t warrant much attention.   The Fox sparrow was unique because of its gray and rust colored plumage and its large size compared to other sparrows.   When I was following it, I thought maybe it was a female red winged blackbird.  Only with the help of the camera was I able to identify it.   Since then, I have visited Loon’s Foot Landing almost daily.   While I have mostly noted the same birds each day, today I happened to see an interesting bird on top of a tree.  I assumed it might be a robin, but upon closer inspection it was gray in color with a sharp beak and black band by its eyes.  The mysterious bird appeared to be a Northern shrike!  These birds are interesting, since they are carnivorous song birds that impale their prey on barbed wire and thorns.  The bird is not very large, but manages to use its sharp beak to kill smaller birds, rodents, insects, etc.  The bird is nicknamed the butcher bird because it is known to store meat in holes or on wires.  I have also seen a Northern flicker, Northern cardinals, chickadees, and red winged blackbirds at this spot.

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Conclusion:

It has been fun going out and observing birds.  I suppose that my friends have been a little bored, as I’ve dragged them along on some of my adventures.  One of the most fun aspects of birding is the realization that there are all these interesting birds around us all of the time, but for years, they went unnoticed and unnamed.  Learning to identify new birds is a bit like learning a new language.  It opens up a whole new reality.  It is the same with learning anything new.  Learning to identify ferns, butterflies, amphibians, trees, etc. opens one up to the unique characteristics of the universe around us.  The life around us is usually the backdrop of our own lives.  It is just the setting, full of unnoticed extras.  To know the names of birds, their habits, their songs, and that they were there all along…is a small peak into the vastness of our universe and the richness of the life of this planet.

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Vangarden Notes: For the Birds

Vangarden Notes: For the Birds

H. Bradford

3.31.17

I feel that I have not had time to pursue hobbies lately.   It seems that activism and work take up the lion’s share of my life.   To some degree, I’ve wanted to make time for more hobbies this month.  To this end, I decided that I was finally going to paint some bird houses.  With the spring migration underway, it seemed like the perfect time to spruce up some of the bird houses that Adam’s brother donated to us.  The bird houses are designed with bluebirds in mind, but according to the National Blue Bird Society the boxes may be used by chickadees, some species of wrens, nuthatches,  tree swallows, and house sparrows.  Last year, one of our boxes was used by a chickadee, which seems like the most likely candidate for nesting in our small, urban yard, which we call “The Vangarden.”


I spent a few evenings painting the boxes.  I am not great at using paint, but it was a fun little hobby project.  What’s more, it looks great to have our yard and house decorated with a half dozen bird houses.   Even if the birds don’t utilize them, I think it adds to the yard décor and communicates our hopes for a wildlife and community friendly yard.  We put the bird houses up in mid March, which I read is the recommended time of year for hanging bird houses in northern states.


Here are a few of the designs:

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This is one of my favorite of the houses that I painted.  I had fun painting some cheerful sunflowers in a vaguely impressionistic style.  Although it looks pretty, I read that birds prefer more naturally colored bird houses.   Interestingly, birds see both the color spectrum that we see and the UV spectrum (well, birds of prey and nocturnal birds less so).  Birds that do not appear to have gender differences in plumage actually appear differently to birds, which can see plumage markings and colors that are invisible to us!  Thus, blue jays, crows, chickadees, and other similar looking birds actually look different (invisible sexual dimorphism) to the birds themselves.

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Another bird house that I painted featured a moon stars, and the Northern Lights.  I actually tried to add some constellations to the box, but it is hard to tell since I added a lot of random dots as well.  I read that bird houses should not be painted dark colors because they can overheat.  But, our yard is very shady….especially the side of the house where this bird house was placed.  I am not too concerned that it will get too hot.

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The above bird house was painted to look like a barn.  The white paint was a little bit drippy so it is not as tidy as I would have liked.

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This birdhouse was made to look like a green colored house with birch trees and a conifer tree on the opposite side.

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Finally, this bird house was made to look like a dark blue house.


Hopefully some birds use these houses this year!   The boxes have been hung on a few sides of the house.  Realistically, they are not spaced far enough apart or covered enough to be ideal nesting sites.  For instance, Black capped chickadees prefer to nest at least 650 feet away from each other.  Nuthatches prefer one box per 6 acres!  Two of the boxes where placed on the front side of the house, where there is a spruce tree and shaggy boxwood bush…but also a busy street.  Our yard is pretty small, so there are not ample choices of where to hang the boxes.  However, perhaps if we obtain others we can consider this an experiment.  Which boxes will get used?  What area of our yard is favored by birds?  Will we attract any other species of nesting birds (other than the chickadee last year)?  Whatever the outcome of our project, it is fun to paint the houses as a hobby and a nice way to decorate our yard.

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