Thursday, December 1, 2011

South Llano River: Part 2 (Sparrows and Tennis)

There are a great many things I like about playing tennis, but the psychology of the game has often been a love/hate relationship for me.  The love part is grounded in what I’d refer to as the geometric psychology of moving the ball around the court.  Quite simply, a good tennis player doesn’t look at where the tennis ball has been—a good player creates a mental map of where the ball WILL BE—the future path, based on a whole host of factors, including the speed, height, spin and angle of the opponent’s last stroke (or volley) of the ball. 

This mental map of where the tennis ball WILL BE is what allows the great players to move forward TO THE BALL, striking it on the rise of its bounce (or “taking it in the air”), making the most of the geometry of angles and placement. Coaches and pros call it “moving to the ball”—and this movement is all about cutting off angles and making the most of a fluidity of motion on the court, grounded in the most basic of geometric principles: that the shortest path between two points is a straight line.  Point A is a player’s current position on the court.  Point B is the best point of strike—where the ball WILL BE, as it RISES from the bounce (or is taken “in the air”).  

This "move to the ball" technique is a significant challenge to beginning tennis players.  A beginner will stand back, and “wait for the ball”, striking it as it falls past the peak point of the bounce.  This wait costs time, distance, and angle of attack—and is a defensive strike, giving away the offense to the opponent.  The beginner did not “move to the ball” but waited to “run after” where the ball did take them.  Kind of like life—do we move in the direction we want our life to take us, or do we run after where our life is going?  This life strategy was wonderfully presented in the great movie “A Coal Miner’s Daughter,” based on the life of Loretta Lynn (sans tennis racquet).   

Tennis is a game of being in the present—with the present focused on physical movement toward the future.  And tennis is also a game of being in the present MENTALLY—with the present focused on THE point in play; not the last point’s mistake or great shot; not the next game’s strategy, when fighting wind or sun conditions, or waiting for service ownership.  Tennis is all about “Being Here Now” as human factors folk like to say.

And so, as with many sports, tennis offers a bounty of life lessons—and writing lessons.  I tend to write about where I’ve recently been, and not about my current day in the field, or how I plan to prepare for the next field experience.  I let time pass with my writing, struggling with mapping words to photos—looking for that “little story” to tell.  And as with neglected phone calls or e-mails, the longer the time passes, the harder it is to write.

I’ve been sitting on some “almost good” sparrow photos from this past October’s trip to South Llano River and Pedernales Falls state parks.  I’ve wanted to describe my love/hate relationship with sparrow identification.  I’ve wanted to share some lessons learned when staring at these LBJ’s (little brown jobbers) through the binoculars.  But it is time to simply say that these “almost good” photos speak for themselves.  And then it is time for me to move forward in my writing to where I’m “moving to the ball” which most days means chasing birds, dragonflies or butterflies in the RGV.  But I do miss the geometric psychology of moving around the court at Mills State Park…

(Note:  The below photos will be better viewed by “clicking on them” to enlarge)
Some sparrows are easy to identify, as with this White-crowned Sparrow, with name and “white crown” of head providing unmistakable markers:

And some sparrows are more of a challenge.  What say you to this species below?

A hasty glance might suggest a Chipping Sparrow or a Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  But a seasoned birder will correctly identify the above photo as a first winter White-crowned Sparrow!  Yes, this is the same species as the first photo!

And don’t confuse the above 1st winter White-crowned with one of my favorite beauties, the Field Sparrow in the photo below:

And in similar fashion, I must not confuse the Field Sparrow (or a host of other sparrows) with the adult (nonbreeding) Clay-colored Sparrow, a delightful hill country “get” in photo below: 

If you have a birder’s field guide, note the difference in coloration of sparrows such as the Clay-colored during breeding season (usually spring through late summer) versus nonbreeding season (fall and winter).

And then enjoy the expression of this Lincoln’s Sparrow's face, in below photo, and ask yourself about the key marker’s that would distinguish it from the Song Sparrow or the Swamp Sparrow.

Lincoln’s Sparrow:

Song Sparrow:

In these photos you may easily jump to the clear distinguishing characteristics.  But in the field, I find it easy to get rattled with the similarities of sparrow species and then I have a brain freeze when trying to identify the specifics of each species.  I must confess that there are times that I “suit up” for a day in the field, ready to chase birds as I begin a beautiful hike on a multi-mile trail.  And sure enough, just fifty yards into the hike, the first Aves to fill my binoculars is a LBJ.  And sometimes, just sometimes, I relate to Indiana Jones and his “snakes, not snakes” with my own version of “a sparrow, oh please, not sparrows today!”—and I must make a decision:  ignore and delve into a long hike, or stop so early in the hike and focus on the LBJ at hand (actually in bush).  And the more times I decide to stop and make the effort, the more times I am rewarded with these delightful creatures.
So the next time you see a House Sparrow in your yard (or sneaking into your dryer’s outside vent), remember that these LBJ’s can delight when viewed in the field.  And when you get the chance, spend some time at the bird blinds at South Llano River State Park and Pedernales Falls State Park—they provide a great classroom for LBJ studies.


  1. I was never good at Tennis, but give me a game of billiards and I might just be decent ;-) Great post Emily look forward to seeing you soon. Susan

  2. Someone beat me to the first comment this time. Looks like I am going to have to move "forward to the ball."


  3. Great story and lovely pics! Sadly I'm behind on many things, it's time I move to the ball, rather than waiting for it to come to me. Here I thought I was learning patience.


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