Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ramadan mubarak!

I haven't had much time to do anything lately, thanks to a soldier who made a mistake while I was supposed to supervise him. The specialist - who shall remain unnamed of course - fired his rifle while attempting to clear the ammunition out of it.

Happens from time to time? It's okay, he was tired? I was just distracted? There's no such thing in the army. In fact, losing control of one's weapon in any form is the infantryman's capital sin.

So far we've both had about thirty hours of extra, which really isn't so bad but enough to deprive us of a bunch of sleep, and the final punishment hasn't yet been decided but it's looking like it will be unusually light (normally, rank and pay are taken away).
I haven't been bringing my camera most days, but I did get a few pictures anyways.

The birds have stopped dying off. It was fun walking around and pulling dead warblers, shrikes, egrets, quails, etc. , but it was also starting to get a little depressing. Now I see a lot of hawks, including a black-shouldered kite Elanus caeruleus, but mostly it is the same warblers, buntings, shrikes and wheatears as in the spring except that the numbers are lower. Also I made the mistake of shipping my field guide out with a bunch of gear. So the buzzards, pitpits, brown warblers, and eagles are all sp. I couldn't even put a name on the dozens of redstarts that showed up one day. Julien - do you know if this is just a colorful subspecies of the black redstart?

And I am pretty sure that this is a juvenile red-backed shrike Lanius collurio.

In other news, it is now Ramadan. I though about trying to observe Sawm for a few days, but it would be really dificult because I work a really long shift and the breaking of the fast (iftar) is right in the middle of my already insufficient sleep. Also, we don't get breakfast until after sunrise. Maybe after we're off mission. After all, it'll still be Ramadan until well into October.
The Kuwaitis are generally okay with us eating and drinking in the middle of the day while they themselves gradually fade away in the heat, but we try to eat and drink only when we are away from them. Public violations of Ramadan are explicitly prohibited by military regulations and Kuwaiti civil law, but most of us don't care about those ridiculous rules. It's usually better to informally enforce sensible conduct instead.
Thankfully, the temperatures have been going a little further down and the days are a little bit shorter, so this year's Ramadan isn't as bad as it will be in, for example, 2010 (in August!). My best Ramadan experience, so far, is chasing and catching the terrified ewe in this picture. She was later killed and cooked, but sadly I wasn't there for iftar so I missed the resulting meal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

We love our FNGs!

I guess I’ll have to explain that… In English, FNGs stands for “F*ing New Guys”.

Our FNGs are from Virginia, and they are coming to replace us so we can go home.

Finally! Of course, we still have to train them, swap our equipment, ship our stuff out of the country, fill out mountains of paperwork, check out through our mobilization station, wait for flights, etc. So it’ll take at least a month before we can look at life through the warming glow a glass of beer again.

I did a few good things recently:

I have been in country for over eleven months. Only one to go!

And finally, I won my “100 kilometer Club 2007” T-shirt this morning! That is a T-shirt that the run organizers give to those people who log in for 100 kilometers’ worth of organized races in the year 2007. It may sound easy, but between days where I miss a race because of work, days where I forget to sign up, and days where the run is canceled because of dust storms or because the mandatory ambulance is on a mission, it’s pretty hard to get to the 100 kilometer mark. I am the only one in the battalion who made the mark. My times are a little worse than they were last winter (5 kilometers in 18 minutes and 22 seconds this morning), but I am actually surprised not to have lost more weight and speed than I did over the summer.

I did an Army physical fitness test while wearing my body armor and Kevlar helmet, and carrying my rifle (except for the sit-ups, which I couldn’t do with a rifle because my fingers have to be inter-locked). The APFT consists of three events: push-ups for 2 minutes, sit-ups for 2 minutes, and 2-mile run.

I completed:

- 49 push-ups, versus 96 on my last APFT.
- 56 sit-ups, versus 80 last time.
- 2 miles in 14:14 minutes, versus 11:14 on the last APFT.

My total score was 232/300, versus 298/300 last time, with the Army minimum being 180/300, and a “perfect” score being 300/300. A perfect score corresponds roughly to being in the top 10% of the US Army.

So I still passed the test, but the extra weight really did take a serious toll.

As for birds, I have been seeing all sorts of interesting things but it was mostly on two dawn patrols, where I still hadn’t grabbed my camera and binoculars from the trunk of the Humvee. The best bird by far was a white stork (Ciconia ciconia), but I also enjoyed a few harriers sp., buzzards sp., black kites, a pratincole, and an eagle Aquila sp. I also found a few dead birds – the best one by far being a little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus). It is kind of cool getting to hold a tiny little heron.

Sometimes it seems that life has been really interesting for everyone except for me. Julien went touristing around Spain, and explored a cool giant cave in Southern France, Laurent saw the great bustard in Estremadura, and my dad went to the Pyrenees!

It appears that I haven’t been giving explicit enough information about my plans through this blog. As it stands, here they are:

- Spend a few days in Sitka in the fall. Go kayaking weather permitting (just thinking about it I get all excited).
- Go to Chile until sometime in January.
- Move to Juneau in early January.

- Re-start classes, again, for the spring semester.
- Depending on what fuzzy math method the counselors elect, I am about fifteen to twenty-two semester hours away from a BLA with emphasis in English and psychology.
- That translates into two more years of study for a four-year degree that is the equivalent of a really good high-school degree.
- As far as living arrangement, I’ll most likely be renting a room from Jad.

And by the way, who is Jad? Here’s a picture of him from the last time we shared accomodations:

Of course, we had a bit more room there than we will in his condo in Juneau... Jad’s a floatplane pilot, an infantryman, a former sailor in the Navy, a dad (as of this summer), and a good friend. He was my team leader on the Southern Iraq mission last spring. We both like to drink coffee and talk about random things, exchange books, etc. So this should be a stress-free arrangement. Of course, the best landlady in the world is still Noelle, but there just aren’t enough classes offered in Sitka for me to complete my degree there.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Illegal migrants turn themselves in to border police!

The birds are still suffering out here. Quails, in particular, have been willing to go anywhere for some shade. I had a quail fly into my Humvee and land right next to me, almost on top of the seat belt clip. Of course, it was trying to get some shade. The quail looked up at me, and I was absolutely stunned. I tried to catch the quail, but the bird looked really fragile so that when I had my hand on it I hesitated to grasp firmly, and it flew back out of the Humvee. Other quails flew under concrete blocks and in the shadow of building, and I could not catch or photograph them either. But I ended up getting a quail that flew into a Kuwaiti Police building and was caught by a Bangladeshi servant. I released it just before sunset, and got this picture before it flew off. Back in France, I don’t even remember ever seeing a quail although they are not rare, because they are usually well hidden in vegetation.

Since I was talking about vegetation, there is an interesting picture I thought I’d post. The natural habitat here is made up of very hard sand with a few perennials and many annuals that mostly dry up around May. However, most of Kuwait is heavily browsed by camels, goats and sheep, and driven over by all sorts of vehicles. By the time summer comes around, these parts of the desert will have been obliterated, and the sand gradually becomes soft at the surface. The fence in this picture was closed only a few months ago for tactical reasons, and already we can see a drastic difference between exposed and protected areas.

And here is another migrating bird that flew into the same Kuwaiti Police building. This one is a hoopoe, the bird I just cannot get tired of seeing and photographing. It is being held by a Kuwaiti Raqib, which is roughly equivalent to a staff sergeant in the US army. It takes about nine years to attain that rank from Shurtti - the lowest rank.

I have been reading a lot, and for variety I went back to reading in English. My most memorable reads of the last two or three weeks were:

Mala Onda, by Alberto Fuguet
If you lived here I’d know our name, by Heather Lende
The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx
El Tunel, by Ernesto Sabato

I really enjoyed The Shipping News, from which I had already read a few chapter in anthologies. The language is simply amazing, as in this passage:

“The sea. Heard a big one. She’s building a swell.” They stood below the amber sky, listening. The tuckamore all black tangle, the cliff a funeral stele.
“There. See that!” Yark gripped Quoyle’s wrist, drew his arm out to follow his own, pointing northeast into the bay. Out on the darkling water a ball of blue fire glimmered. The lighthouse flash cut across the bay, revealed nothing, and in the stunned darkness behind it the strange glow rolled, rolled and faded.
“That’s a weather light. Seen them many times. Bad weather coming.” Although the trickster sky was clear.

Although my main focus lately has been on improving my Spanish, I am looking to improve my English. For example:

- A “factoid” is not a fact. It would be a factoid to say that the Iranian government is a Sunni Muslim state.

- A name for duct tape is “Mississippi chrome”.

- I am going to standardize my quote marks, which I used to always put at the outside of punctuation.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A tough time for migrating birds

It is still very hot our here - well over a hundred degrees F every day.

Whereas I have gotten disturbingly used to the heat (I even slept the entire afternoon in a humvee in the sun today), the birds are suffering and dying quickly. A "feldegg" yellow wagtail I found wedged between a cardboard box and a wall was dead less than an hour later. Under many parked cars there were dead shrikes, warblers, sparrows, and wagtails who hid in the only shade they could find but died anyways.

Still, there were some live birds. I even saw two species and one subspecies that I had never seen before. This one is the short-toed lark Calandrella brachydactyla. I found it panting under a car, but I was able to chase it out into the light where I could snap a picture of it. Other birds, especially the wagtails and warblers, remained firmly ensconced under cars.

This is one of the birds that just wouldn't budge, so the photo came out really strange. I posted it anyway because it is an other species I hadn't ever seen before: a River warbler Locustella fluviatilis. The legs appear pink because the light outside the car's shadow glows right through them:

I have always had a soft spot for pipits and wagtails, a family known as motacillidae. Whereas the two previous birds were new to me and rather unusual, today's best bird was by far a yellow wagtail Motacilla flava. Most of the yellow wagtails here are of the feldegg (the coolest-looking one) and thunbergi subspecies. This one is the first one I see of the beema subspecies. It looks a lot like the nominate subspecies that predominates in France, but it has a little white patch on the cheek:

And here's a bonus bird: the great grey shrike Lanius griseus. Apparently, this is the pallidirostris subspecies because its beak is mostly pale, and its lores are white. This one wasn't hiding under an object for some reason. He was doing his best to hold on to his barbed wire perch, and kept his eyelids closed because of the sand (I forgot to mention that the wind has been fierce lately, and everything exposed to it is constantly sandblasted).