Monday, December 13, 2010

Hey, Hawk!

"You thief, you! Get outta there!" I think it was a Cooper's hawk---horizontal tail stripes, no red shoulder, no red tail, medium sized. It would not be deterred, no matter how loud or close I was, which was only a few giant steps from the tree where it was ravaging a squirrel's nest--- and no matter how many indignant house finches flitted around in the same tree scolding.

Silent it came at first, unbeknownst to me. I was fluffing bows on window-wreaths across the front of the house, making my own noise in the leaves underfoot, when I became aware of much small bird chatter in the Bradford pear tree above and behind my left shoulder---the kind of chatter that usually signals trouble in birdworld. I can't always discover the source of the trouble, but this time it was easy. By now all the leaves have fallen, so the hawk, the nest, and at least a dozen fiery red house finches were clearly visible.

When the shouting didn't work I tried to stare it down. It stopped long enough to look down on me, but showed not a care. The finches and I were no threat---they for their size, me because I was bound to the ground. I was surprised at the pluck of the housefinches, actually, and wondered why they cared about a squirrel's nest. But I felt solidarity with them as I tried to shoo this hawk away. Its arrogant response was to hop to the edge of the nest to stab at the interior with its talons, far above my reach. Slap slap slap. Rattle, rattle, rattling in the dry leaves of the nest---while we watched!

Never mind the natural order of the Georgia ecosystem, the food-chain and all, or that our yard is overrun with squirrels. It was the idea of tearing up someone else's nest in broad daylight amid the righteous outcries of the little guys that agitated me. I'm tempted to make a political comparison, but have sworn to keep politics out of this blog. So make of it what you will. A better ending to the post would be to quote the Buddhist notion my daughter encourages.

"Know that it is, but do not suffer from it."

Thank you, Sarah. It works for indignations large and small. dkm

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Birdly Bird

Big excitement in the limited birding world of this backyard spectator. A single wood thrush. First sighting ever. December 9, 2010, 8:30am. Temperature below freezing, in the 20s. Seems late for migrating. Staying here for the winter? Cinnamon brown head, plainer brown back, distinctively spotted breast, round fat body, long straight beak, pretty pink feet. Foraging for sunflower seeds on the deck floor beneath the feeder. Stayed a long time, hopping around, showing herself at all angles, flipping oak leaves around, unaware of my presence, just four feet away on the other side of the glass. She held me captive for the duration of her visit. An excellent and birdly bird.

8:30-9:00 seems to be the current peak time for coming to the feeder. Other birds at feeder this morning between 8:30 & 9:00: male and female cardinals, house finches, carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, brown-headed nuthatches, whitebreasted nuthatches, my bluebirds (calloo callay), downy woodpeckers, a single female towhee. dkm

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mystery Character . . .

Somebody spent the night in the garden shed for real, and I did NOT stick around to find out who.

I carried my copper bucket full of kitchen scraps out to the compost heap this morning. When I took the pitchfork off its hook just inside the shed door, I accidentally bumped it hard against the wall. Came a softish low sounding groan from the back of the shed that lasted almost two seconds.

This shed, I ought to say, is rickety, and one of these days a small bump will be the one that knocks it over. Assuming the first groan was the shed itself, or some of its contents, shifting as a result of the bump, I deliberately knocked it again to confirm. Came another delayed groan, decidedly animal in nature. Surely not, I thought.

I buried the scraps and returned the fork to its hook. Mooaaaan. I knocked again. Came the moan again. Four incidents of obvious cause and effect were enough for me. I left fast, not wanting to see, hear, or know who was waking up---be it cat, fox, possum, or worse. The mercury showed below the freezing line. Let the creature stay warm and undisturbed. I'd make a terrible farmer.

This, by the way, is a repeat of a similar incident that inspired the beginning of my current manuscript nearly six years ago. dkm

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rainsplash Piano Keys

And speaking of coincidence---let me not forget to recount a lovely one that occurred on a recent rainy day, Mon, Nov 15, to be exact, during my morning meditation, which necessarily took place inside looking out, due to rain.

Many birds at the feeder drew my attention away from meditation, causing me to wonder why they didn't take shelter in the rain. Housefinches, cardinals, titmice, chickadees, and yes, my pair of bluebirds, filled all six feeding stations, aggressively vying for the available perches, chasing each other away for their turns. It was as if they thought it was their last meal for a long time---maybe because of the storm?

Steady rain fell vertically in the absence of wind, and I sat watching through glass doors, pondering the birds and the rain on the deck banister, which was at eye-level. Tiny splashes raced back and forth across the flat-topped banister at random intervals, reminding me of piano keys under an able pianist's fingers. As I watched, I became aware that beautiful piano music was playing on WABE radio's Second Cup Concert. I did not recognize the piece, but noted how like these birds in the rain it was. I listened, consciously willing the rainsplash to synchronize with the piano, mesmerized by the visual and aural mix of the moment.

I don't know if the confirmation that followed was due to mathematical odds or cosmic choreography, but remarkably, Lois Reitzes's distinctive voice announced at the end of the piece that it was Franz Liszt's piano composition titled St. Frances of Assisi Preaching to the Birds.

In the words of Dave Barry, "I am not making this up." I was only paying attention. dkm

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mathematically Speaking . . .

How is it that so often after one gives pause to anything new, the same new thing comes across one's path again in a different context, seemingly too soon to be a random coincidence?

It happened again today. While reading The Heart of a Distant Forest, by Philip Lee Williams, I came across a literary reference to the glistening of the sun in the pine trees---a reference that would have escaped my notice had I not recently written two blog posts about the same topic. (Oct 22 & 29)

Mere coincidence? Yes, I think so. I used to think it was an indication of some cosmic force at work, but in the course of keeping this nature blog, I've come around to the coincidence theory.

Mathematically, millions of bits of information present themselves to us in a day. The odds are pretty good that once in a while, two of them will be similar, and if we're paying attention, we'll notice. THAT's the key element---IF we are paying attention. Just one more pleasure to derive from the simple act of being mindful. Yay.

It's also likely that we increase the odds of the kind of coincidence in question by our self-selected behavior patterns. That is, a person who chooses to sit in the backyard for at least an hour a day is way more likely to be reading a book by Philip Lee Williams than one by, say, Michael Crichton. dkm
"And so today I praise the strength that still courses through my hands and the joy of seeing the sunlight scattered on the pine needles."
---Philip Lee Williams, in The Heart of a Distant Forest

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pinestraw Welcome

The seat of the John James Audubon swing was covered with a four-inch deep fluffy mix of pinestraw and leaves when we returned from our trip to the west coast. Beautiful colors. Twelve days away. A thousand observations worthy of blogposts. No way to catch up. Unless---a list---a name-only list---as a way at least to trigger my own mental reflection, however incomplete. Oh joy---I relish a good bulleted list. An efficient short-cut.
  • The Los Angeles homeless population and I, waiting together for the downtown L.A.Public Library to open/we lined up in orderly fashion when the security guard opened the doors/entered in single silent file/we shared the second floor/I in my carrel, writing/they in theirs, sleeping or reading/a kind of solidarity/we did not disturb each other/I love that public libraries are open to the homeless/more open than most churches/how is that?
  • Big Sur/OMG/Big Sur
  • The thing about Big Sur: that its carved rugged beauty, ever moving, has been there for millions of years, since long before we evolved to admire it/we're not the reason it's there/why the beauty?
  • Sunset over the Pacific Ocean/view from Nepenthe/nice photographer
  • Torrey Pines/cone from Moe's golf outing/this pine cone deserves its own blog post/as does Big Sur/but I cower in the face of their magnificence/the pine cone's one-in-a-millionness/Big Sur's one-and-onliness/my pencil goes still
  • The Redwoods/OMG/and the Sequoias/like Elaine of Seinfeld again/describing hell:-)
  • Olallieberry Inn/olallieberry jam/the word as delectable as the fruit/a berry's berry
  • Biking across Golden Gate Bridge with eight revised chapters on my back to give to editor in Sausalito at Cibo
  • The views from the bridge/the sun on SF/on Alcatraz/on Sausalito/a fogless morning
  • The good pinch of muscle/leaning into SF hills
  • The sea lions on Pier 39
  • Savoring the food in Chinatown and North Beach
  • The woman who wanted only 25 cents/her scratched and bleeding throat, her twisted limbs/her rheumy eyes/her Chinese accent/her satisfaction with a quarter/A QUARTER/when my wallet was full
  • The vast table of clouds from the Airtran window/BEING above the clouds/IN the poetic welkin/not the first time/yet the first time
  • Yellow cast of fall light through the color-turned woods welcoming us home
  • Leaves/green when we left/red on return
  • Air/transformed from mushy to crisp
  • Pinestraw cushion on the swing
  • dkm

Friday, October 29, 2010

Got It

I finally captured the luminous reflections of morning sun on loblolly pine needles in the canopy. It doesn't show up as well in blogspot as it does in iPhoto, but I think you can see what I mean about the mystery of the shine. (Referring to Oct 22 post---Loblolly Canopy) dkm


Blue blue October sky. Crisp air. A single maple leaf lets go of its branch and swings to the ground, in lovely transition from life to death. A transfixing moment observed.

My dear friend Pam told me yesterday about the same moment for her brother, who let go of life during the singing of the Doxology by his family and church choir members who had gathered around him for his transition.

I am honoured that she shared the moment with me, and it recalls another---the fleeting moment, forever remembered, when my father and I squeezed my mother's hands as her last breath drifted into the universe---in the way of the red maple leaf. dkm

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Day Inspired

Two bluebirds came to the deck today. First an adult male, then a young fluffy one. Their wing flutter was audible through the screen of the open door as they slowed to land on the feeder bar. Ever cautious, they flew away in their characteristic dip-dip-dip pattern of flight.

I've not seen bluebirds all summer. Not since last spring, when housewrens routed them out. What a relief to know they found a new nesting site. May the fledgling and its siblings have enough time to grow before it gets cold.

The visit imparted more gladness than I knew to expect of a few seconds. It was enough for a day. dkm

Sunday, October 24, 2010

BB Guns, Daylight, Birdflight, & My Father

I participated in a workshop last week-end for which we were assigned the exercise of writing a very long sentence. The instructor was of the belief that every good novel should sport at least one 100-word sentence. I was a dismal failure at the assignment in class, but today the birds and I recall an old journal entry which, if polished, would fit the bill nicely. Triggered by the intersection of old memory, current observation, and lingering fret over my inability to comply with the writing assignment, it represents one of many ironies in my father's memorable personality. Wordcount: 106.

"My father, who was not a hunter, and who, far from it, was a man of formal speech patterns, tender heart, and playful spirit, once surprised me by telling us how he often sat as a boy in the church pews looking for a clear view between the necks of the people in front of him through which he could see all the way to the front of the sanctuary, and that he imagined being a good enough aim with his BB gun to get a straight shot through the hole without raising a hair on the neck of a single pious Mennonite in the congregation."

Now when I look through the trees to a spot of cloudless sky, I remember his boyish reflection, and wonder if the same shot of daylight is what guides a bird in flight. It surely must be the thing that causes it to fly, innocent of the technology of a pane of glass, headlong into a window of a house toward the light it can see through the front and back panes.

Aside from my grief for the poor bird who falls prey to its misconception of a window, a grief I most surely inherited from my mother, it gives me a kind of whimsical pleasure to recognize the large and small ways my father has also shaped my current thinking.

Maybe someday I'll write about his vivid description of a squashed hotdog, employed to teach me not to run into the street. dkm

Friday, October 22, 2010

Loblolly Canopy

Here are a few views of the loblolly pines that have inspired my recent posts: from my deck, from the swing at the foot of one of them, and from the center of the yard.

What the photos don't show is the mystery of the day: the reflection of the sun on the needles. If you inspect a new-fallen clump of loblolly pine needles at close range, they are not shiny. They are many things---blithe, slender, dull green, blade-like, brush-like, smooth or sticky depending on which way you stroke them, dry and calloused to the touch, unique by any standard---and lovely---but they are not shiny.

How is it then, that the direct sun on the high pine canopy shimmers and sparkles along every needle it touches---with an iridescence that defies description in a million instances? Visible with the eye, but not with a camera, this phenomenon lends yet another opportunity to reflect on the transcendent mystery in the beauty of light. dkm

Monday, October 11, 2010

Piney Questions

The more you learn about anything, the more uncertain you become about it, because you discover how much more there is to learn on the topic. The squirrels appear to be poking fun at my lack of knowledge. Or showing off. Or trying to teach me a thing or two. Or simply doing what they do, never-minding what I know or don't know. (I love that about wildlife---that it does its own thing for its own purposes, not caring a whit if anyone notices---a good role model for domesticated humans.)

Since my last post full of erroneous assumptions about stripped pinecone cores, the squirrels have started chewing off and dropping dozens of green-needle-clumps that look like the endmost tips of the highest pine boughs, each with several tiny perfect brand new pine cones budding along the stems. At first I thought the falling clumps were yet another result of our current drought---signs of pinetrees in stress---but my husband pointed out that they are chewed on the ends, likely the work of the squirrels again. Could be a secondary result of drought---squirrels looking for moisture---only a guess.

All of this provokes two new questions:
1. Why are squirrels chewing and dropping the pine needle clumps? I've not noticed this in previous Fall seasons.
2. How long does it take a pine cone to mature from first tiny reddish brown bud, through tightly closed green cone, eventually to dry and brown and open and fall from the tree of its own accord? Must be at least three years, since all three stages exist on the tree at once. Will research and report back.

I have at least learned, by asking an expert in the area (thanks, Anne T.), that the southern yellow pines in my backyard are of the loblolly variety. dkm

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Generosity of the Pinetree

Never mind what I said a couple posts back about a thing newly learned becoming ordinary. It never does. Not if you come back to it with another round of deep attention. Last September, for instance, I noticed and photographed and wrote about the plethora of pinecone cores the squirrels dropped. The cores are falling again and they're just as surprising in 2010 as they were in 2009, but for a different noticing. What I should have said about careful observation is that no matter how often you attend an ordinary thing, a new truth presents, yet allowing more to know in exchange for the simple act of paying attention.

Today it's not the barren cores that reveal more, but the extracted teeth of them. My good friend and neighbor Peggy described them as razor blades in her driveway. They are the same in my yard: sharp-tipped as needles and tough enough not to break when you step on them in stocking feet.

Until today, when they sprinkled down on me in the swing from a squirrel's shredding station directly overhead, I had assumed these sharp teeth came from the dried brown cones that also begin to fall at this time of year. But no. I picked up a tooth the moment it fell. It was cold and damp to the touch, green-tipped and fresh looking, not in the least dry or brown or brittle---from which I learned that the cones the squirrels select to shred are this year's new green ones, not last year's dry, brown, and already opened ones. Last year's cones are falling on their own.

But of course. The squirrels shred the green cones to find fresh seeds at the roots of the teeth. One seed per tooth. They would have no use for last year's dead cones.

I had noticed the beautiful reddish brown color of the stripped cores that fell, but had not made the connection that they came only from new green cones---and I had many times read to my first graders that squirrels and chipmunks eat pinecone seeds, but never knew fully what that meant. Today's observation has also corrected my assumption that one pinecone bore one seed for the purpose of pine tree regeneration. But no, the seeds per cone are many. Now it all makes more sense.

I am well aware that botanists have long ago studied and written about these things. But I didn't know them until I paid attention and learned from the inside out. That makes all the difference.

The generosity of the pine tree is staggering when considered. Behold the gifts she bequeaths the earth. Beauty and shade and wintergreen for us. Homes and food and protection for woodland creatures. Pinestraw to cool and renew the earth at her feet. The very oxygen we breathe. Wonder. Magnificence. Awe. Her tall silhouette against the sky. And yet we destroy her.

Janisse Ray has recently written it most brilliantly in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, about the destruction of the Southern Yellow Pine forests.

And finally, with apologies to Robert Frost:

The way a squirrel rained down on me
the teeth from the fruit of a pinecone tree
has taught me that truth is not readily known,
but revealed over time, when observed
as a cone. dkm

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


A new bird came to the feeder today whose ID mystifies me. I'd be grateful if any birders out there know its name. It had the overall look of a grosbeak, but offered mixed signals as to which species. In the guide books I consulted, it most closely matched a female black-headed grosbeak---except the same books indicated they live only in the western half of the U.S., never in Georgia.

This bird had brownish head & back feathers, with a distinct white stripe over each eye and a center stripe up over the forehead and crown of head. Its beak was of unmistakable grosbeak shape and size. It had pale rust colored breast feathers, and whitish belly feathers---with a well-defined horizontal division between the colors of the breast and belly. Smallish yellow patches on either side of the breast, near the wings. Wing feathers were markedly black with dominant bright white streaks (also very grosbeak-like). Similar in size to a cardinal. No crest.

It was most likely a female, but her markings seemed a confusing mix of both rose-breasted and black-headed grosbeak. In Decatur, GA. Late September. Maybe not a grosbeak at all---but that beak was pretty telling. I saw her only once all day---mid-morning. Anyone know what she was? Dr. Zinn? dkm

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Things Extraordinary

A thing I've noticed in my three-year habit of sitting outside for an hour a day paying attention to whatever comes, is that the first time one gives careful notice to anything is the time most surprising---and therefore most noteworthy. It is what nudges me to write. I may or may not have a previous peripheral awareness of the item that calls itself to my attention on any particular day, but the moment I focus on it with intention, a new clarity always arises.

Another thing noticed is that once learned in that way, the attended phenomenon becomes part of my repertoire of knowledge that is then, and only then, embedded in my organic fiber---meaning I will never not know that thing again. "That thing" somehow becomes ordinary, and later makes my response to my writings sometimes fit into the category of thinking characterized by the statement, "Well duh! You didn' t know that? Get a life, why don' t you?"

Such is the response I would guess careful observers of hummingirds might have if they read my recent elementary observations. So be it. It energizes me to describe it in graphite, both in the moment of the writing, and later, that I may read it and realize how far I've come. dkm

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Power of ZOOM or The Luxury of Fearlessness

A hummingbird came to investigate me on the deck this morning, where I sat with my first cup of coffee, still and silent, reading Physics for Future Presidents. (Don't ask. It's for book club, in the interests of being neighborly---the Good Neighbors Bookclub, to be precise.)

But how is it that so often two things converge coincidentally in one's awareness so as to give an extra punch to one's understanding? In this case it was the hummingird's behavior against the backdrop of my reading.

The sun was up. I was aware of the activity at the red-globed feeding station but chose to ignore it, engrossed as I was in Muller's explanation of the relationship between energy and power.
Engrossed and ignoring, that is, until a female hummer came to a full hovering stop in front of me---close enough that I could hear the hum of her wings, which is what arrested my attention---and close enough to be within the short range focus of my reading glasses, about eighteen inches from my face.

We looked directly into each other's eyes, in sharp focus, she and I.

It was a spectacular moment, full of fearless curiosity---a luxury afforded a hummingbird only by its remarkable ability to go from the proverbial zero to sixty in an instant---that is, to rapidly transform and multiply its energy into power. The power of sudden speed. A hummingbird could not thus check me out had it not the ability to ZOOM if I moved. It all lends an interesting perspective on the powerful vs. the powerless relative to size---and to world peace. dkm

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hummingbird Feet

I promised a post about hummingbird feet, so here it is. I was actually surprised to discover that hummingbirds had feet at all, heretofore believing the myth that they never light. That myth was debunked within an hour of hanging a new beautiful feeder on the deck.

"Hang it and they will come." Right away. Who knew so many hummingbirds were waiting nearby for a pretty red feeder? This one doubles as a garden ornament, brushed copper with shiny red glass globe. A bit pricey, but when I saw it at my local hardware store, I couldn't resist---having wanted a hummingbird feeder but refusing to hang the tacky red & yellow plastic variety. But I digress.

Back to the little black legs and feet that hang like two fine three-pronged wires under the floppy torsos of the tiny bird bodies hovering around the feeder. Tiny they are, but perch they do. All the time. They zoom back and forth between the cherry trees and the feeder, lighting on exposed twigs and occasionally even on the feeder itself. Their legs are no longer than 1/2 inch. The little prongs for feet are like the bent end of a staple, only black. I can't take my eyes off them, wondering at their size.

Of course, the hovering and nectar sipping acrobatics are equally noteworthy, but those I knew to expect. The feet I didn't. I can guess that experienced hummer watchers would be shocked at my ignorance. I also predict this will not be my last post about these remarkable ruby-throated gems. dkm

Friday, September 10, 2010


A phenomenon in the periphery of the back yard catches my eye every fall---more accurately, every late summer. A few leaves of blazing red pigment, beautiful and shocking so early in the season, stand out in a canopy otherwise green. The mornings have only just begun to cool. The afternoons are still hot. Yesterday's mercury reached above ninety degrees. One could not yet call this fall.

Only these few leaves are red in the sea of green. They hang on a single twig at the end of a branch in a tree that stands just across our property line at the edge of the woods. The rest of the leaves on this tree are still mostly green, though some have yellowed. Other trees around the edge of the yard are still fully green. How does it happen that one twig on one branch of one tree allows its leaves to turn suddenly crimson, when the rest of the leaves on same tree gradually turn brown or yellow as they prepare for the single ride of their lives to the ground?

The tree doesn't look healthy, and perhaps that's the answer. It sports several bare branches that never do leaf out. Maybe the deep brown and yellow leaves that fall with each breeze would be equally crimson if their tree were robust. This tree makes a valiant attempt at a new fresh canopy every spring. I've watched it do so for as long as we've lived here, 15 years. I don't know what kind of tree it is, and it doesn't matter. Its few red leaves are my latest model for tenacity when the writing work gets hard. dkm

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Simple Art of Paying Attention

So I realized yesterday, when I went to hear a speaker who, like me, writes a blog on the merits of simplifying and paying slow attention to the ordinary offerings of a day, that a few distinctions separate her from me. She, for instance---by physical demeanor---exudes serenity, talks softly, pauses long, moves barely. I'm pretty sure the people in my life would not describe me that way.

The speaker's words were soothing, inspiring, understated, funny, even outrageous at times. These attributes make for good writing, but it is not a stretch for her to slow down. For me, it is a monumental achievement. I'm only saying that slowing down is not as "simple" for some as it is for others.

True, she's been writing her essays for five years in contrast to my one, but I doubt I will ever pull off serenity as well as she. The irony is that, despite giving lip service to the joy of life, she didn't sound happy. Her monotone public-speaking voice denied inner peace. It almost put me to sleep, and I couldn't help noticing other eyes at half-mast in the auditorium. Perhaps her aura of contentment relaxed us. I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it felt more depressing than relaxing. I wondered if people of my demeanor vex her soul. She spoke of giving up toxic people. I feared being one of them in her view, but I do enjoy a day and the things it has to offer, including the people in my life. dkm

Monday, August 30, 2010

Apology to a Small Creature

Early this morning, within my peripheral vision, something large, silent, and swift descended into one of the hydrangeas near the deck where I sat contemplating the hummingbirds at the feeder. This is the season in which hummingbirds come by twos, threes, and fours, nattering away at each other. I had intended to write about their tiny hanging feet today, but the Cooper's Hawk in the hydrangea instantly changed my focus.

A noisy rustling skirmish in the leaves under the bush indicated the hawk's success at hunting its breakfast, but then---oh terrible then---it abandoned the prey it had only maimed, spread its powerful wings, and flapped twice to perch on the back of a patio chair facing away from me, not ten yards from where I sat. I know not if it was aware of my presence when it first attacked the hapless creature below, but now it turned its head and looked me in the eye. I hadn't moved except to turn my head toward the skirmish. Was I the reason the hawk so cruelly left that poor creature to an agonizing death? I shuddered at the piteous konk-konk-konk-konking in the throat of the small dying thing, whatever it was. I could see the movement of the leaves, and hear the konks, but could not identify it---could have been a bird or a chipmunk hidden in the dry leaf cover.

After a few seconds of eyeing me from the chair, the young hawk, with horizontally striped tail and white splotchy feathers in its back, flapped to a new perch on the fence, where it stayed for several minutes before offing into the woods with only two flaps and a glide. A few minutes later, it startled me again by flap-flap-gliding past my shoulder, low and close enough for me to hear the whir of its wings against the air, though it did not return to the place of its terrible deed. Again it disappeared into the woods. Had it been stalking me to see if it was safe to return to its breakfast? Is this the same young hawk that has watched me garden?

From under the hedge adjacent to the hydrangea, where the maimed prey was somehow able to take refuge, the konking slowly, gradually, terribly, grew weaker and weaker, until it stopped after about ten minutes.

It is not to my credit that I was too squeamish to assist it to a faster death. I have neither the heart nor the stomach for such a task. But now I must live with the aural memory of those diminishing konks, wondering at my responsibility in this event.

The hummingbird feet will keep until a later post. dkm

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Beetle in Shock & Robert Frost

For too many days I've given my backyard over to the heat, the mosquitoes, and a bad mood about not getting to my real work of writing. But this morning the thermometer reads 72 degrees, offering hope. The air is cooler but the mosquitoes are relentless. So much for restoring my mood by sitting outside. I'll be driven in soon, with mosquito-slapping.

Still, the birds sing, the dogs bark, the crickets drone, the squirrels chase, the tiger swallow tails go on intoxicating themselves in the little white tube blossoms of the abelia bushes. A pine cone falls on me from the branch overhead. Whether dropped by a squirrel, or released by its branch, I know not, but it splattered, dry and brittle, on my head and arms. One of the broken pieces landed on the hem of my shirt and didn't fall away like the others. Turns out it's a small brown beetle clinging for its life to the stillness of my shirt, legs and antennae tucked under its hard dry shell, looking for all the world like a piece of pine cone, but not acting like one.

It must have been a terrifying free-fall for a beetle who thought he had found safe refuge in a pine cone far from the madding crowd. When I nudged him with my pencil his antennae and legs popped out as if to say, "What? Am I still alive?" After a moment he crawled away, but not before getting a reading from his wildly waving antennae about his new situation.

Magically, in the time it has taken to write this entry, the mosquitoes have gone away, slow breezes waft, and my bad mood has lifted. It brings to mind yesterday's NYT article about the negative side-effects of constant digital connection, and the energizing effects of a little time spent in nature.

Robert Frost wrote about it too:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of day I had rued.


Monday, August 9, 2010

My Ugly Bald Cardinal

Mites: the answer to the question of July 20's post, "What caused my beautiful father cardinal to go bald?"

According to Dr. Zinn, friend and ornithology consultant, head mites are common among cardinals. They can preen the mites from their body feathers, but not from their heads.

Like many phenomena of nature, this one is sad, true, easy enough to understand---and renders a thing of beauty ugly---REALLY ugly.

Knowledge of the presence of head mites prompts other questions and more online research, though I can't vouch for the answers I found on the blogs of other birders: Are the mites harmful to the longterm health of the cardinal? No. Will the mites die off like insects in winter? Yes. Will the cardinal's head feathers grow back? Yes. Will the eggs of the mites left in abandoned nests survive the winter and begin a new generation next spring? Yes.

The particularly frightening, bald, black-headed, mostly-red patriarch of the cardinal nests in and around my backyard, still frequents the feeder over the deck, as do his comical first-year offspring. His mate and children are all varying shades of tan with reddish tails. One tall skinny daughter with disheveled yellowish feathers hops on the deck looking quite shell-shocked. She eats only the debris on the deck floor beneath the feeder, but her more aggressive brothers, equally comedic, vie for direct time and place at the portals of the feeder. Some of them are splotchier than others as they molt to exchange their brown feathers for red. The adolescent males exercise their crest feathers up and down, strutting and prancing, discovering their male prowess, providing us with great summer theater through the window.

One of them, poor baby, is beginning to show signs of mites---that is, losing feathers about his neck and head. It's the cardinal equivalent of male pattern baldness. dkm

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Hawk Next Door

By its size and stubby tail, I know the hawk that accompanies me while I work outside in the cool of the morning is a youngster. Male or female, I don't know, but it has a persistent whistle, which I hear often, even from inside the house, and this morning, from a lower bare dead branch of the dogwood just above my head.

It's a little unnerving to weed with a hawk watching my every move. What does it want? dkm

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Colbert Report

It's been too hot to be outside---but I'm ever aware that the wild creatures who share their space with me can't share my luxury of choice about staying where it's cool. The life that teems out there has not stopped just because I'm not there to observe it.

All it takes to find a topic for a blog-post is to show up. (Wish I could remember to apply the same principle to my more intentional writing endeavors.) This morning, no matter the high heat, I spent a half-hour weeding in Sarah's 21st birthday garden, and sure enough, much presented itself about which to comment---mainly the hawk next door.

At first I wondered if it was one of our abundant bluejays mimicking a hawk's whistle, as I've been fooled many times before. But these whistles seemed too long, too persistent, too loud for a jay. I stopped weeding to look in their direction, in time enough to spot the powerful and majestic silence of a hawk taking flight from the fence between my yard and the neighbor's into the leafy canopy. Had this hawk been watching me weed? I had been aware of its whistle while I worked. It continued from some higher perch unseen, long after I returned to my hoeing.

I half-expected the Colbert Report to begin. dkm

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Squirrel vs. Gravity and Safflower

Q: How long can a squirrel hang upside down without righting itself?
A: At least eleven minutes if an uncontested food source is involved.

I know because I timed it, and it would have been longer if another squirrel hadn't chased the first one away. I had cleaned up an old tube-shaped bird feeder that hangs from an arm on a pole in my garden and that I know is not squirrel proof. I refilled it with safflower seeds because the package said squirrels don't like them and finches do. Without dwelling on that bit of false advertising, I find it hugely surprising that a squirrel can hang upside down from a bar for eleven minutes eating ANYthing.

This squirrel's hind feet held tight to the bar while its body stretched long and thin and straight downward. I had an urge to tickle its pure white soft-looking belly. Its head and front feet snatched the seeds from the bottom of the feeder, barely within reach. Its tail flopped loosely around, I assume assisting with balance.

The whole spectacle seemed counter to everything I know about gravity. Wouldn't the pressure of blood draining into the squirrel's head cause it to turn upright once in a while? Wouldn't the downward force of gravity prevent the chewed and swallowed seeds from moving upward through a wrong-turned outstretched esophagus? How long could it have continued its upside down quest if it hadn't been chased away? These are questions whose answers can not be found on the internet. Still, I'm curious. dkm

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Window Theater

What would cause a seemingly healthy male cardinal to go bald? At first he looked deformed, misshapen, splotchy red and black about the head, but as more and more crest feathers fell out, I saw that his head was perfectly round like a bird's head should be--and surprisingly black, when featherless. By now, he is frightening to behold, with bare black head above a body fully feathered in red. He never stills long enough for a photo.

The cardinal in question has come to the feeder outside the sliding glass doors since mid-May, almost certainly the patriarch of the nest in the neighbor's holly tree. Through two months of live-acting, he gradually revealed more and more black-skinned head.

First spied mating in the azalea thicket, then in and out of the holly tree, often on the banister feeding his beloved a sunflower seed from the feeder, he has been a model lover and father. Now his adolescent sons and daughters come to the feeder with him, sometimes lined up three at a time on the deck banister, waiting their turn on the feeder perch. The young are smaller and browner and comical looking, the males turning redder and cockier by the day. Only the absence of their father's head and crest feathers makes for a less than perfect family portrayal.

Is it caused by an environmental hazard, or is it genetic? I'm guessing the former. Either way, I half-expected the young to show signs of the same problem, since both their habitat and genetic codes are the same as their father's. So far, the new generation looks healthy. Time will tell.

Mysteries abound when one pays long slow attention. I would have expected more answers, fewer questions. It's been quite the opposite. The only truth revealed is that the more one sees, the more one finds about which to wonder. dkm

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

M.A.P.S. / Releasing a Bird

To hold a wild bird in one's hand is to touch the pulse of the natural world. The warmth of its bird body, the beat of its heart, the clutch of its foot around a finger, the quiver of wing. Each sensation, taken individually, was a thing of wonder; collectively, they coalesced into an awareness like no other, of such combination of frailty and bravery and stoicism and toughness and patience and endurance and perseverance and grace as to be a model for how we all should live.

Yet such sentient abundance paled next to the exhilarating release of tension that came from the lifting up and letting go of each bird---to feel it take leave, to see it first dip then rise into the air on its own power when only seconds before it had been powerless against the soft fold of a human hand. The high competence of a small bird in the face of what must have been a terrifying ordeal was exemplary. Unrolling my fingers to return each bird to its own wild brought a lightness of spirit to be remembered for a lifetime. dkm

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

M.A.P.S. / Banding a Bird

If a bird captured for momentary study does not already sport a numbered leg band, one is applied. Banding is the final step in the process, after examining the bird, after recording the collected data, and before the ultimate release. I could never have guessed how one goes about putting a metal band (I think it is lightweight aluminum---please correct me if wrong, Dr Zinn :-) around a wild bird's leg without hurting it, so again my curiosity was piqued.

Of course, as for most human endeavors, there are tools perfectly engineered for the task. The thickness of a bird's leg is first measured with a simple but cleverly designed instrument of calibrated notches, in order to select the correct size of band. The sizing instrument is a flat plastic card with notches along all four sides that correlate with all potential leg sizes. This photo shows the leg-sizing card, the apparatus for measuring the wing, and the hand pliers used to clamp on the band.
The bands are small metal tubes, open on one side like the letter "C," that come on a carefully regulated wire, so as to always be applied in proper numerical order. The precisely sized and numbered band is inserted into a specialty pliers, again with perfectly sized notches engineered so as not to injure the bird, and using the hand pliers, BINGO,the band is gently clamped around the shaft of the leg, allowing it to fit like a loose bracelet.

Swallow, little swallow, (a reference to Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince), your discomfort is almost over. Next step, release, but for that near-religious experience, you must wait till next post. dkm

Monday, June 21, 2010

M.A.P.S. / Studying a Captured Bird

Most surprising of all the new information gained on my bird banding day was how gender and reproductive status are determined in species that look alike. The researcher blows on the belly to part the feathers, thus revealing either a female's "brood patch" or a male's "cloacal protruberance," both of which are red and swollen during the breeding season. The brood patch is a large featherless patch on the breast and belly with which the female warms her eggs or nestlings. The cloacal protruberance of the male is what it sounds like.

I found it comical to discover that the brood patch is assessed with descriptive terms like vascular, wrinkled, smooth, heavy, and molting, while the cloacal protruberance is assessed only for small, medium, and large. Make of that what you will regarding cross-species similarities, but don't deny that it makes you laugh.

Common Yellowthroat

Inspecting the feet

Measuring the wing of a cat bird

Determining flight feather wear

Blowing apart the feathers to assess "brood patch" or "cloacal protruberance"

Recording the data
The data collection was fascinating to watch. Each bird was inspected, measured, and assessed at close range for more than 30 specific bits of information, all of which were meticulously recorded, and many of which I had never before considered. My learning curve was high. Things like flight feather wear, molt limits, plumage; measurements of wing, skull, tail, body fat, eye color, mouth & bill, and much much more, for the purpose of determining age, gender, health, and reproductive status. Much of it was more technical than I was able to follow, though I found it intensely interesting---especially the myriad determinations about the plumage---the primary & secondary coverts (outer feathers), and inspecting the molt limits for primaries, secondaries, tertials, and rectrices to determine age, history, and health status.

If the captured bird already had a band on its leg, the number was recorded along with the new data, later to be entered into computer and compared with earlier observations of same bird. If not, it was given a band, a process to be described in next post. dkm

Sunday, June 13, 2010

M.A.P.S. / Checking the Nets / Extracting the Birds

Step two of the bird banding day was to check the nets and extract any captured birds, which we would do every half-hour throughout the morning. It is still darkish in northern Indiana at 6:30, but now the birds are singing like crazy, unlike the quiet of 6:00 when we opened the nets. To my untrained ear it is a random dawn chorus---beautiful but indecipherable. To Dr. Zinn, it is an audible map and promise of which birds might be caught, banded, measured, studied, and released on this day. I am nothing less than astounded at the numbers of individual bird songs she can hear, identify, and imitate, including her fluency of mnemonic codes for each.

I meet the gathered team of five expert bird banders---Dr. Zinn in the middle, three graduate students including my daughter Hannah, and a gentleman volunteer who is a retired biologist from Cornell ornithology laboratories. I notice they are all wearing waterproof boots. Already my wet cold feet tell me why. Promptly at 6:30 the team members clip a few small drawstring bags to their belts, get their net assignments and head out. The bags, made of white cloth, are for carrying the birds, once extracted from the nets, back to the banding table. They prevent trauma, injury, and escape.
I follow Hannah to our assigned nets. My shoes and socks soak up the morning dew as we slog through the long prairie grass. Of our three nets, two are empty, and one holds two small brown birds struggling to get free---a song sparrow and a female indigo bunting. An indigo bunting! Hannah gently cups the first thrashing sparrow in her hand, holding its neck between two fingers so the head is on the outside of her hand, the body in her palm. She carefully lifts each thread of the net from the body, but the feet are so hopelessly entwined as to necessitate calling Dr. Zinn for assistance. The second, the bunting, Hannah extracts easily and drops into a bag. Dr. Zinn arrives from somewhere in the dawn to skillfully rescue the sparrow. We carry them back to the banding table. I imagine myself to be a small sparrow, stunned by whatever I have flown into, frightened by the monster hands, mystified by the whiteness from which I cannot escape, unable to understand that this is a temporary discomfort or that I am making a contribution to scientific research. I might be fighting for my life, but I'm not sure, because so far I'm not hurt and no one is eating me. Who knows? I only know I don't like it.

I, as an amateur observer of the work, am thoroughly energized by the experience---the wonder of the natural world, the thrill of new knowledge gained, the marvel at the organizational efficiency of the bird banding process, the care and respect the researchers exhibit for each tiny specimen they study. More on that part of it tomorrow. dkm

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

M.A.P.S. Opening the Nets

I had the remarkable opportunity to participate in a bird banding last week, thanks to my daughter and her environmental education professor, Dr. Lisa Zinn, whom I have consulted in earlier posts on questions about backyard birding. Dr. Zinn organizes bird bandings for MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity & Survival).

I was honored by the invitation and had no idea what to expect of a bird banding. Will describe it in detail, assuming anyone interested enough to be reading this may be as curious as I was about the details of banding birds. It will take several entries to describe.

Opening the Nets:

Our day began at 4:30a in order to arrive at the banding station in time for the 6:00a spreading of the nets. The only recommended attire was water proof boots, which I did not have, but after the first 30 minutes, wished to.

By the experts' casual references to opening the nets, I'm sure they would be surprised at my intense wondering about what exactly that meant. What it meant was untwisting a large black rectangular-shaped net and stretching it vertically between two 8 ft tall poles, about ten yards apart. When the net was fully untwisted, spread, and hooked up, it made an invisible wall between the poles, 8 feet high by ten yards wide. The nylon strings of the net were as fine as sewing thread but unbreakable, in a grid of half-inch squares. The net itself was three layers thick, the top of each layer lower than the one behind it so that no matter where a bird flew into the net it would fall down into a pocket made by the next lower layer, and thus would be held captive in the net without getting hurt.

Ten such nets were set up at strategic locations around the marsh and grasslands of this nature preserve in northern Indiana. Once all ten nets were spread we sat down at the banding station with a good cup of coffee to wait. In a half-hour, and every half-hour throughout the day, we would check the nets for captured birds. That's enough for one day's entry. More tomorrow. dkm

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Arrogance and Beauty

I thought I knew all the sounds of a blue jay--a caw and a shriek both raspy and harsh. But a clutch of new jays have fledged from the next door oak, and have all this week been saturating the backyard---showing off their wider repertoire.

A fluty whistle was the first surprise. One short high syllable, followed by a long airy whistle, so like a hawk's that I looked up many times expecting and fearing to find one perched too close for comfort. Always it was a jay, looking full grown---sometimes performing its whistle while I watched, lest there be any doubt---as if to teach me how little I know.

They are not subtle, the jays. They demonstrated another sort of toot as well---a single hollow owly hoot on just one tone---no rising or falling, no waver or rasp. It's a tone I've heard often and have long wondered who made it. One mystery solved in exchange for another. If they can whistle nicely, why the more prominent and unpleasant caws?

Not that I've ever minded the raucous jays in the yard. Their visual beauty can not be denied. But why such a curious mix of poor manners and beautiful feathers. The parallel in the human world makes me wonder if it must exist in every society---and if it must, why?

One can always feel relieved not to be a beauty, as it improves one's chances of being kind. dkm

Monday, May 24, 2010

Be Still My Heart

A big departure from my usual today---sorry---to indulge the first grade teacher in me---well, more accurately, the grandmother----

My six-year old grand-daughter and her mother were sorting through outgrown toys yesterday to take to Goodwill. When her mother warned her they would be getting rid of a lot of toys, she said, "That's okay, as long as we don't mess with my library."

Happiness. My job is nearly done.

The only photo I could find that showed a portion of her wall of books. dkm

Friday, May 14, 2010

Kissing Cardinals

They're not really kissing, of course---he's feeding her---but it has all the appearance of a tender kiss---and it's the sweetest observation I've made yet in this meditative backyard journey.

A pair of cardinals comes to the deck feeder for sunflower seeds. She sits on the banister and waits. He gets a seed from the feeder and takes it to her on the banister. He strokes her open beak with his in the transfer of the seed. They do this two or three times before flying off together into the neighbor's holly tree across the sideyard fence, where they most certainly have a nest, judging from their frequent entering and exiting of the holly. Though I can't be sure, they are likely the same pair I saw mating in the azaleas last week.

That cardinals mate for life is their most endearing trait, I think, not to mention the brilliant gift of red they offer to anyone paying attention. dkm

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bluebird Dilemma #2 and Cardinals in Love

After the premature and silent disappearance of the first bluebird family from the copper-roofed birdhouse in the corner of the backyard, M and I debated the wisdom of removing the abandoned nest or leaving it undisturbed---not knowing which would best invite the bluebirds to try again and most discourage the house wrens from setting up shop in place of the bluebirds. We decided in favor of removing it, thinking it might harbor bad memories for the bluebirds, and if left, might be precisely what the house wrens wanted, since we think they are who ran the bluebirds off in the first place.

We still don't know if we made the right choice, but yesterday, the male bluebird, who has continued to come and go around the yard, investigated two houses---a smaller one in the front part of the yard, and his first copper-topped home. He showed a definite preference for his first house. As I observed him in and out of its doorway, sure enough, appeared the female. For many long minutes they engaged in the same coy teasing and copying behavior observed in my March 19 blogpost, he on the house, she on the nearby trellis, before offing into the woods. I'm hopeful.

Even as I write about the bluebirds, I think a pair of cardinals are mating in the azalea bushes behind the birdhouse. I hear a low and urgent chip chip chip chip of a different character than most cardinal sounds, and see them both hopping around in the azaleas in a she-said-he-said sort of a chase.

It might be the same pair that nested last year in the overgrown confederate jasmine vine on the trellis by the birdhouse. I pruned that vine severely this winter, and was afraid the pruning would discourage the cardinals' return, so I'm glad to see them back. The jasmine is too bare to protect a nest this year, but I'll keep my fingers crossed for a nest in the azaleas now, and a return to the jasmine in 2011. dkm

Monday, May 3, 2010

Heartbreak Times Infinity

My grief for the family bluebird, as intense as it is, pales in comparison to that of the heartbreak generated by the news this week of the oil spill in the gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Oil spill. It is nothing of the kind. It is an unchecked flow of crude oil from a drilled well in the floor of the ocean that flows yet---and is expected to go on flowing for months---while "the experts" search for and argue about ways to contain it.

I shudder to consider the long term damage to the ecosystem caused by the greed and short term thinking of all humanity. As devastating as this will turn out to be for the economy of the area and for the country in its ripple effect, at least the human population is resourceful enough to gain alternative ways of life, however altered. But the birds and the fish---my god---the birds and the fish---and every species of plant and animal that will experience long term horror and death without hope as a result of this disaster is a consideration that shakes me to the core.

But aside from increasing my donation to the Audubon Society, and encouraging others to do the same to environmental organizations of their choice, I only watch and despair for the creatures of the earth who are helpless against such force of human destruction, and for a society that has sprawled unchecked to a point that it would act in its own disinterest---indeed, at its own peril. I can make no sense of it. dkm

Saturday, May 1, 2010

My Achy Breaky Bluebird Heart

Back in my own backyard again: The bluebird box is silent. Madame & Sir Blue have gone missing. I know not what ill befell their family in my two week absence, but it most certainly was disaster. I suspect house wrens were involved. The time was not right for the bluebird nestlings to have fledged, so they could only have come to a bad end.

Here's what I do know about their timeline, some by research, some by my own observations, and some by the eye-witness reports my husband gave me via phone while I was at the bay.

Nesting Facts: In Georgia, bluebirds begin nesting behaviors in early-March. After mating, the female lays one egg a day for 4-6 days, usually by late-March. Incubation period: 13-15 days. Nestling period: 15-20 days. Two to three broods per season.

Observed timeline of this particular pair of bluebirds:
Mar 8: First sighting of male bluebird in backyard and investigating birdhouse
Mar 16: First sighting of female in and around birdhouse and birdfeeder.
Mar 19: First sign of courtship on dogwood branch
Mar 23: Observed both birds in and out of house. Female getting fatter.
Mar 28-Apr 4: Egg laying week. Fat female got thin again by end of week. Both birds seen often at feeder and in and out of birdhouse. (feeder kept filled with shelled sunflower seeds)
Apr 6-11: Now thin female seldom seen, but occasionally perched on branch near doorway of house. Male came and went from house often. She was likely egg-sitting and being fed by him.
Apr 12: More of same. I left for bay, asked Moe to watch and report.
Apr 13-18: Moe sees only the male coming and going from house.
Apr 19: Moe reports seeing both male and female flying and perching in tandem around the yard. Hatching day? Unable to see or hear anything in house. Hatchlings too small to be audible?
Apr 20: Bingo! Moe hears tiny nestling chirps inside house. Very soft chirps.
Apr 21-22: No observations made
Apr 23: No sounds from house. Moe observed a small brown house wren in and out of the house several times.
Apr 24-26: No sounds, no activity of any kind, either bluebird or wren. I returned home on 26th.
Apr 27-30: No activity. Moe confirmed that house wren was seen only that one day, on 23rd.
May 1: Today, in fear and trepidation, we opened the house to see what we could see. Nest was empty but clean, soft, fresh-looking---no sign of nestlings, no sign of shells, no sign of struggle. BUT, we observed male bluebird several times on various perches around the yard, offering hope that he may try again. Where is the female? Do they feel the grief that I feel on their behalf? dkm

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lesson From the Sun at the Bay

I don't want to die just yet. I'd like a lot more morning hugs from M, and I'd like to know H has found the love of her life, and to thank T for so loving S, and to see S get the chance to pursue her art. I'd like to watch my grandchildren grow up to find loves and passions of their own, and I'd like to see The Wayback Letters through to being published.

But if I had to, I could let go without too much disappointment, having had those fourteen days at the bay. They taught me that every day brings a glorious gift if you only pay attention to it, and that it's not so bad turning sixty.

If I'm lucky enough to live to be 100, as I hope to be, by healthy attempts at living well, I still have forty years worth of daily gifts to look forward to---now that I've learned how to receive them. Thanks be to the light of the sun. dkm

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Apology to the Bay

Written 4/26, but not posted until 4/27:

The bay water has eluded me for two weeks. It continues the chase on this my last morning here, having defied my stick of graphite at every attempt to portray it. No two observations of the water found it the same in intensity, reflection, ebb, flow, surface, depth, light, color, hue, tone, clarity, temperature, sound, movement, speed, breath, rhythm, force, or spirit. Even the things it transported were different from one day to the next, whether sea life or leaf or stick or moss or signs of human detritus, including one blue yoga mat and strap (mine).

I prided myself in the small carbon footprint of my time here. I rose and slept with the sun. I played no radio or music or television. I tried to be silent. I buried my vegetable scraps in the earth. I fed the meat scraps to the crabs. I collected my recyclables to carry back to Atlanta. I regret that my efforts were negated tenfold by that yoga mat that floated up and out of my reach on the wind and into the water. It was a stormy day, and by the time I ran for a pole to fish out the blue mat, the white capped waves had carried it several fishing docks down the sea wall.

As a vehicle for sun and wind and inspiration, the water of the bay has been a formidable companion for these fourteen days and nights. Thank you, baywater.

I'm sorry about the yoga mat . . . but the wind did it. (a reference to the great line in Denys Cazet's picture book, You Make the Angels Cry, in which young Albert tells his mother, "I told the angels I'm sorry I made them cry, but the wind did it.")

And I am sorry, Bay, that I can not describe you. dkm

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Good Bye, Yoga Mat

Yesterday: A host of swallows, purple martins I think, by the vivid blue of their backs in flight, arrested me again and again. They kept flying in circles, reminding me to notice the frenzied panic I was working myself into about a particular passage in chapter six that also kept going in circles and getting stuck in its own muddy tracks. It rained on and off all day.

The dark blue swallows seemed to be saying, "There's no cause for alarm. That's how it is with writing. Sometimes you have to go around in circles for a while to find what you're looking for."

Today: I woke to an early morning gale off the bay whistling in the trees and beckoning me out to the porch. The Spanish moss in every tree was whipping in all directions.

I heard the telltale papery slap of eagle wing. At eye level, in the light of dawn, my broad-shouldered companion flew right through the low clear space between the porch and the pinetree with something big in his talons. As he passed the Barbie-leg pine branch (see 4/20's post) the something dropped with a heavy thud at the base of the tree.

I'm still sorry I interrupted the eagle's breakfast, but scroll on to see what my camera found later in the grass, when it was light enough to see what had dropped.

The day was sunny and bright after yesterday's gloom. The wind stayed high, fresh, and dry, making white caps in the water of the bay all day. It blew my yoga mat right off the dock and far away. I breathed in and out. The breath of the universe took the shape of my lungs. I bent to the sun in a yoga pose.

And later still, chapter six practically wrote itself. dkm

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mary Mother of God and I'm Not Even Catholic

Today's post can only be a tribute to last night's storm over the bay. No way to describe it except to say "The lightening---my god---the lightening!" End of post.

However . . . I feel compelled to explain that the osprey comment in yesterday's post and the lightening comment of today's are both direct references to Elaine's famous line in an early Seinfeld episode in which, after describing the horrors of hell at length she finishes with ". . . and the heat---my god---the heat!"

It's one of her more memorable lines among many. I reserve it for extraordinary moments like an osprey's thrilling plunge into, or lightening's terrifying extravagance over, the Bay of St. Mary de Galvez. dkm

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fine Fine Day

I finally added the photo to 4/20's post about the Barbie leg pine branch, if you're interested.

For today's entry:
It's a fine day in the life of a birder when at 10:30am two male scarlet tanagers, brilliant in their red, cavort in the bare limbs of a hickory tree not ten yards away, and later---after a good day's work at her computer---she sees a large heron, likely a great blue, fly slowly across the sunset parallel to the surface of the water with the aerodynamic silhouette that only a heron can make---neck folded back against body, long beak leading, wings wide and bent, straight legs stretched horizontally behind---to slice the orange backdrop of cloud and redhot ball of sun exactly in half---and neither one is the single-most significant sighting about which she chooses to write.

Such was the day this birder had yesterday---the day the bald eagle woke her up. And still she has not mentioned a mysterious episode with a domestic black cat or the luck she had with the revisions of chapter six---or even the beautiful poem a friend sent.

So today---already today---I rose @ 6:00am, made coffee, set up chair & binoculars & camera on the porch, propped open the screen door, and was rewarded by my bald eagle, within thirty seconds of sitting down, cruising low and slow over the bay. I could only hear the minimal splash in the water, because the large bush at the base of the pine tree blocked my view, but sure enough, immediately after the splash, rose the eagle to his favored perch in the pine.
Assuming the bobbing of his head was the swallowing of his catch, I was thrilled to catch it myself on camera. dkm

p.s. I finished the above entry in my morning journal at 7:30am. By 8:30 I had written this in the top margin of the page:

An osprey---my god, I think it's an osprey---just settled into topmost needles of the pinetree with a clear fluty call---from there to fly down, hover momentarily over the water, and plunge feet first into the bay with an enormous splash. As it flew away it shook itself like a dog after a bath. Roger Tory confirmed the osprey identification. Black body, whitish belly, white in wings when opened, long heavily feathered legs. Definitely not my eagle, though I thought at first it was.

And just now, before leaving for town to post this blog, a smallish bird with greenish belly swooped down to snatch a tiger swallowtail butterfly from the air in the path right in front of me. This place is a backyard spectator's paradise. I will almost be relieved to get home where I don't have so much to choose from! But no, the nestling bluebirds are waiting for me there. dkm

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wake-up Call

Who's at the gate? Came the creak again and again. Who's there? I wasn't afraid. I only wondered. I opened my eyes. It was 6:38 a.m. Again came the call of the rusty gate. My eagle!

I tossed back the covers and stumbled, pre-coffee, to open the door. There he was. Calling from his favored pine branch. Waiting.

He opened his wings. Welcome, he might as well have said. He folded them up again, crouched, leaned toward the bay, opened wide and lifted off, ever so slowly. His wings whispered, "Follow me, and don't forget to read Graeme Gibson today." "Right," I answered.

I had intended to write about the ever-changing nature of the bay water this morning, but a bald eagle woke me up. dkm

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It All

Maybe it all has to do with the sun. The light of the sun. The heat of the sun. The energy, the spirit, the power of the sun.

While I'm at the bay, I sit on the end of the dock every morning and breathe. And every morning some aspect of the sun presents itself. Often it's a sensation beyond the spectrum of the written word, at least beyond my grasp of the spectrum, and on those days I choose something else to write about.

Sometimes it's a physical phenomenon that can be described in word only, not in reality. Like today. Today and every day, if there isn't a heavy cloud cover, when I look into the water in the same direction the sun is pointing---that is, with the sun square at my back---I see in the water, radiating out from an epicenter I can NOT see, actual beaming bands of light, in straight lines---like those in a child's drawing of the sun. Each radiating beam has a different intensity of light or shadow, and the bands don't ripple with the water, as the intersecting strings of refracted light do. They are simply there. Steady. Stable. Solid. Untouchable. Unshiny. Not unlike the rays you sometimes see passing through clouds---misty and grayish, but flat against the surface of the water, or just under it---I can't tell which. They widen and disperse outward from an unseeable center to an unseeable end in a radius of 180 degrees.

As I search for words to describe what I see, the shadow of my bald eagle companion moves over the array. I take up the binoculars to watch the eagle fly. His wings pump at a steady pace, propelling him with force, head down. He doesn't once stop pumping to soar. He flies fast in the light that passes through the sky. I feel like a child watching a helium balloon. But the eagle disappears in less time. dkm

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lesson From a Pine Tree

The lowest branch on the pine tree from which the bald eagle surveys the bay baffles me. Not the branch itself as much as the joint of the branch where it originates from the trunk. It's a branch-joint like no other, in that it is not the usual upward sprouting V-shaped variety, but a ball-and-socket sort of arrangement.

Though I'm sure it can not, it gives the appearance of being able to pivot, like one of Barbie's legs, to the other side of the tree---as if, were I strong enough, I could swing it around in a half arc, up across and down again to point in the opposite direction.

I wonder what act of nature so injured this branch at its base, and at its colossal will to keep on growing despite the setback it must surely have suffered. dkm

Monday, April 19, 2010

Humble Birthright

I read online that a lizard's greatest strength and protection against danger is its visual acuity. If that be true, why did the subject of yesterday's blog post have to search so long for its door in the ground? It looked to be more of a trial-and-error-by-feel proposition.

Maybe this was a particularly nearsighted specimen. But if it couldn't find its own doorway within an eighteen-inch radius, how would it ever know if a hawk above had an eye on it? I would have guessed, after yesterday's observation, that its coloring and markings were a stronger defense, allowing it to go unseen---that and random dumb luck---for isn't a lizard's one great purpose on earth to provide food for neighbors higher up the chain? It's the most humble of birthrights to be sure---to hatch and grow and live to be eaten by a hawk.

I'm reminded of last year's observation in this same location of a red-shouldered hawk that plucked a hapless green lizard from the grass beside me---and of this quote, which I keep above my writing desk for reassurance that I'm not wasting my time:

"How can they say my life is not a success? Have I not for more than sixty years found enough to eat and escaped being eaten?" Logan Pearsall Smith


Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Life of a Lizard

A lizard sat in the sun. Yellow and black stripes ran the 6-inch length of its back and tail---the sides of its neck and belly were sky blue. It did nothing to catch my attention, being almost perfectly camouflaged in the sandy soil, dry grass, and bits of gray blue Spanish moss that litter the ground. My eyes just fell on it somehow.

I watched it for some time. It didn't move much, except for an occasional change of position. Then all at once it made a purposeful beeline for another area in the grass, about ten feet from where it had been. There, it scurried around in fits and starts as if looking for something in the sand. A few fast steps in one direction. Stop short. Look around. Another few steps in a different direction. Stop. Look. Listen. It repeated this pattern many times, looking more frantic with each scurry, until it looked quite deranged, actually. It went on so long I was about to tire of watching. Then as fast as it started, the search ended, and the fellow disappeared vertically into a lizard-sized hole in the sand.

Was that it? The poor thing was trying to find its doorway all that time? If I had to go through as much to find my way home, I might never leave. Lucky a human was sitting nearby or this little reptile might have become lunch for a hawk---or my bald eagle. All that movement surely destroyed the lizard's own camouflage. A lose-your-door, lose-your-life sort of arrangement. Glad I'm not a lizard. dkm

Saturday, April 17, 2010


A writing retreat of silence and solitude. Hardly. It's far from silent and I'm certainly not alone. Between the companionship of the trees, the calls of the birds, the tap of the woodpeckers, the eagle and hawk sightings, the ever-changing laps of the baywater, the leaping out of the mullet, the hatching of the jellyfish, the creeping of the crabs, the puffing up of the lizards, the purring of the wind, my steps in the dry grass, the beating of birdwings, the waving of the leaves, the drooping of the Spanish moss, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the passing of the clouds, the late night booms over the bay, whatever they are, I can begin to understand why native American people didn't speak much. They were so busy watching, listening, interpreting. dkm
p.s. If you're interested, I've added photos to yesterday's post about the live oak tree and to April 13's post about the bald eagle.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Of Moss and Limb

A splendid old tree keeps me company at the bay while I write. The owner of the house refers to her with a feminine pronoun so I will too. She is a live oak I think---a mostly dead live oak, riddled with

woodpecker holes and all hung with spanish moss, yet full of life.
Aside from the variety of woodpecker species she now supports, she has likely been home to countless birds and insects across her lifespan. I'd love to know how old she is. She has lived through quite a few hurricanes, of that I am sure. She has only three branches left that still grow green leaves. Her broken dead boughs make a striking and statuesque silhouette against the sky.

She bows to every sunset with humility and reverence. I've taken hundreds of photos but not one of them breathes like she does in the act of letting the sun down. Her thick curved trunk is split and rotting inside, home to any number of creatures. Last year in late May, a swarm of bees made honey inside her trunk. What a rare gift to have naturally occurring honeybees not farmed in factory built hives. I see no sign of them this year. Too early? Here's hoping they return.

What is that growing inside the split in her trunk? Last year the morning sun shone through the split, but this year it is blocked by some grotesque sort of bark like growth. I'm afraid to reach inside to touch it. It is covered with bark, but shaped nothing like any part of a tree trunk. It's a roundish billowing hump-like thing, yet looks solid and firm, like hardened lava, but the color and texture of bark. A final valiant effort to heal her wounded soul? A cancerous growth? Something else altogether?

She has lost at least one large branch since last year, I assume in a windstorm. I miss the growing possum-shaped moss that hailed me from that branch in my past two visits. On the remaining stub of this branch now sits a pair of African Gray parrots, rendered in moss. As I worked on on my revisions on the screened porch today, my bald eagle friend, in flesh and feather, landed on an upper limb of the tree---and later, a striped tailed hawk. She is an ever changing picture frame, this tree.

Full of dignity and generosity in her dying, she lends courage to anyone who will accept it. dkm

You can click on any of the pictures to enlarge them.