Sunday, August 28, 2011

Low Tide, High Tide, and Hurricane Irene

 Approximately every thirteen hours, low tide turns the marsh on Wilmington Island, Georgia, into a vast expanse of what first looks like nothing but mud and grass.  On closer inspection, the mud is riddled with holes and crawling with tiny crabs the exact color of the mud.  The crabs are many, well-camouflaged, and in such constant motion on the surface of the mud, it looks like it's boiling.  They're all over the boardwalk, too---on it, under it, and between the slats.  At first it seems impossible to avoid stepping on them, but they scurry fast at the last second before footfall.  No wonder the green herons and the egrets, both great and snowy, hang around at low tide.  And no wonder they wait so still and long.  It requires a swift silent stab to surprise a crab. (No rhyme intended, but I'll take it :-) These crabs are about the size of a nickel,  gifted at eluding shoe or camera, and don't stand a chance against beak of egret. 
 (See comment from Mike B. on my last post  re: the blood vessels in the egret's neck when it so stabs---and while you're at it, check out Mike's blog---some amazing nature photography.  You can get to it by clicking on his name in the comment box.)

High tide comes about six and a half hours later, when the marsh fills with water deep enough for kids and dogs to splash in.  It was about waist high the day I saw two young brothers having high adventure hiding from each other in the tall grass.  I kept thinking about the crabs under their feet, and had to ask their father.  They wore special shoes, he said, and the "mud" is not actually mud.  It's fairly solid clay which explains why the water was remarkably unmuddy, even where the boys stirred it up.

Ordinary high tide on Wilmington Island looks like this from the boardwalk:
 Enter Hurricane Irene---well,  more like pass at a safe distance--- but close enough to make herself known.  Nobody played in the high tide that came with Irene.  The storm was intense, if short-lived.  The trees whirled.  Massive sheets of rain whipped over the marsh.  The lights went out.  It came and went in less than an hour, followed by the proverbial calm after the storm.  But the power stayed off and the water crept higher, until the marsh looked more like a lake.

Here's Irene's high tide, taken from about the same spot on the boardwalk:
By the time the water got to within ten yards of the house,  I became a bit concerned, but like the crabs, it reversed its direction in the nick of time.  This shot is from the deck on the back of the house:
Unlike the crabs, it retreated slowly.  Within another six hours came the mysterious hollow popping sounds I've heard before at low tide.  I think it's the crab holes opening up as the water drains back to the ocean.   I'll ask three locals and let you know what I find out.  dkm

Tomorrow:  John Muir, on the eternal grand show of nature.   

Friday, August 26, 2011

Of Cranes, Herons, or Egrets?

 It's a lesson I have to keep re-learning---that it's all in who you know---that is, who you talk to, and in this case, what who you talk to thinks they know.

Being a girl from the plains of Kansas, I know little of island life, and less about the barrier islands of south Georgia, where I am now, on my latest self-imposed writing retreat.  Stepping from a dock onto a boat terrifies me, despite being not a bad swimmer.  Even in Kansas, we had to take swimming lessons at the municipal pool of the nearest town, seven miles up the road.

But one can learn a lot from the locals, so on Wilmington Island, I ask questions of those I meet.

First, after hearing Guy #1 (and many others)  refer to the tiny island of solid ground in the middle of the marsh as the "hammock," I asked how to spell it.
Just like it sounds, said Guy #2, h-a-m-m-o-c-k.
In the context of the marsh, I wanted to know more, so I asked the next guy. Tell me about the hammock.  Are there snakes here? (I was nervous about walking across the roots in sandaled feet)
You mean the "hummick," grinned Guy #3.
Really?  How do you spell that?
Just like it sounds, h-u-m-m-i-c-k.
I looked it up.  Dictionary definition:  Hummock:  A piece of forested ground rising above a marsh."

Next question, next day, new person on the dock:
What are those tiny creatures all over the boardwalk that scurry sideways when your foot falls in their territory?
Guy #1:  I don't know, little crabs, I guess.
Guy #2:  Baby crabs.  They'll grow up to be the big blue crabs we eat.  But some people will tell you they're fiddler crabs.
Guy #3:  Not the same as blue crabs. That's as big as they ever get.  They're just food for the birds.   Lots of people fish with them.

New day, new question:  (in preparation for this blogpost---call it research :-)
Me:  Are those herons---the big white birds in the marsh?
Guy#1:  You mean the cranes?  Nah, they're just cranes.  I don't know what kind.
Me, with rephrased question of next guy:  What kind of cranes are those?
Guy #2:  They're not cranes.  They're herons.  White herons.
Gal #3:  Neither crane nor heron.  They're great egrets.  Aren't they spectacular birds?

I'm going with great egret.  Gal #3 sounded like she knew what she was talking about.  Besides, it's so poetic.

Gal #3 turns out to be a horticulturalist.  Judy.  She and her husband Buddy and dog Dylan took me out in their boat at high tide.  In addition to being lovely people, they were fountains of knowledge about the islands.  Judy assured me there are no snakes on the hummock.  Only legless lizards.  Comforting.

Tomorrow:  Hurricane Irene


Some Great Egrets on Wilmington Island
On the distant dock

Mother and youngster?
Too close for comfort. 
Brilliant in the sun
View from my deck
It's called a boardwalk for a reason
From Buddy and Judy's boat
Lift off
 Buddy and Judy and Dylan

Thanks for the ride!  dkm  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

White Herons on the Boardwalk

At last I'm caught up to where I am---Wilmington Island off the coast of South Georgia, just one long bridge from Savannah.  Fabled Savannah---the city of parks and squares and E. Shavers Bookseller.  The city of southern culture and history, graveyards, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  The city of gardens, spanish moss, ancient Southern live oaks, and The Book Lady.   The city of slow living, social drinking, good eating, and relaxed people.  The city of the heart and soul and spirit and mood of artistic expression---of SCAD.  That would be Savannah College of Art and Design.

When I come here, the energy of the place takes over.  Some of my best chapters have surfaced on the marsh of Wilmington Island.  Chapter 37 today.   

But I digress. This is supposed to be a nature blog.  So, in keeping with the nature of this place, I'll write about the herons tomorrow.  dkm 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Admonished by Geese

Talk of alarm clock and lullaby.  Such a racket the geese made over Lake Junaluska, where I was last week, working on the elusive chapter 33.  It took days of forced concentration on loose puzzle pieces that wouldn't fit together until day 8.  Had I been at home I might have walked away from the computer a thousand times, but the geese would have none of that.

The combined ever-present chatter they make over and around the lake is next to impossible to capture in words.  From single murmurs and sputters when they're settling at dusk, intermittent whining throughout the night, chatty conversation amongst themselves in the early morning, to full-blown honking by the dozens when they  fly low across the lake in crooked Vs.  Each must be trying to out-honk the next.  New York City taxis are no rival for their collective clatter.

Migrating geese high above Decatur in the spring and fall are loud enough to call me out of my house.  But over Lake J, where they are year-round residents, near, low, and many, they are deafening.  I could never catch them in flight, though their Vs are common sights skimming across the lake.  

The week I was there, they never once let up with their admonishing.  "Keep typing!  Keep those keys clicking!  Don't you dare get up from that computer!  Don't you know ideas can only flow through moving fingers?  For God's sake, you came here to write, so write already! How much tea can you drink?  TEA?  You really think green tea is the answer?  Write a blogpost about us, why don't you?"

All of them rattle at once.  I did not feel gladness in my heart for their honking until chapter 33 was behind me and 34 fell easily into place.  Still, I wonder, are there no predators of the Canada Goose at Lake Junaluska? dkm
Canada Goose

A pair

A gaggle

  The Jemima Puddleduck kind?

Chatty cousins

One misty moisty morning over Lake Junaluska

Friday, August 19, 2011

Southern Accents in Birdworld--Who Knew?


Lake Junaluska introduced me to the song sparrow.  I suppose I had heard it all my life but had accepted it with the blur of the whole and never isolated its song.  This particular fellow outside my window overlooking the lake was not to be ignored.  He was my alarm clock, my writing background music, the noon whistle, afternoon delight, dinner music, evening serenade, and lullaby.

Likely with a nest nearby, he always repeated the same cadence, tone, and pitch of his rising and falling song.  It was two years ago in May of 2009.  I was on a writing retreat for silence and solitude, working on ch. 8,9,10 (and remember the angst well).  I got to know his song so well I copied it on my flute, and later on the piano, but only barely mentioned it in one my first blogposts.

I remember it, because I worked intentionally to understand the song of a song sparrow, and thought I did.  Wrong. When I got home I heard another puff-puff-bzzz-like song, but it had a very different ending pattern from my Lake J guy.  I thought it was a different variety of sparrow, maybe a vesper, but definitely not the song sparrow I knew so well.  I was confident in my self-discovered knowledge, until the visiting Dr. Lisa Zinn, birder extraordinaire, and my lovely future daughter-in-law, confirmed that the bird I heard at home was indeed a song sparrow.

From Lisa I learned that the "introductory notes" are the identifying feature, that song sparrows have different "accents" in different parts of the country, and that it almost doesn't matter what comes at the end.  If it puffs, it's a song sparrow.

Fast forward to Lake Junaluska, Aug, 2011, retreating in same house, now working on ch. 33 (more angst).  Come the puffs and buzzes and bingo!  A very different ending pattern.  Thank you, once again, Dr. Zinn.  Another example of a bit of knowledge being the tip of the iceberg---the enticement only to learn more.  dkm

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Burning Question

Why does the American Robin NEVER come to the backyard feeder, even before a storm, when the rules about who eats seeds are relaxed?  Is it because a good rain practically serves worms on a silver platter? Or are they just picky eaters, there being no worms or fruit at a seed feeder?  Or do they consider themselves tough enough to go out in a rainstorm?  They do have a sort of arrogant air about them, what with their stiff backs.

Even bluebirds, who have a similar diet, come to the feeder occasionally, and not only before a storm.  If anyone out there (Lisa, Mary, Hannah, Nicole?) knows why a robin never does, I'd be grateful to be enlightened. Many thanks, dkm.

p.s.  Let me not forget to express my gratitude to my big brother Dan for the gift of a bird feeder that is really and truly squirrel-proof.  It affords us hours of bird-watching pleasure, otherwise described as furious flipping through bird identification guides.  Even Moe.  So thanks, Danny Boy.  You have a knack for gifts that feed the soul, as well as the birds----and because I can't resist, duplicate books.  I'll take a second copy of this bird feeder anytime.  FYI,  the extra books have found a worthy place in my writing critique group's lending library.  :-)   

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Birdfeeder Before a Storm

Another thing I've learned, primarily from the birdfeeder outside my sitting-room window,  is that birds tank up before a storm.  As surely as drivers before a trip, when our backyard inhabitants sense an upcoming siege of weather, whether wind, rain, snow, or ice, they attack the feeder with a vengeance, making quick work of a forty-six dollar bag of hulled sunflower seeds (which I buy to reduce the chaff on the deck).

On an ordinary sunny day in Georgia, we see an intermittent stream of one or two seed-eaters at the feeder, usually just one species at a time---more at dawn or dusk, but on and off all day.  Primarily they are cardinals, house finches, gold finches, chickadees, or doves---all operating under a kind of understood etiquette to wait one's turn. 

But comes the calm before a storm and the rules change.  Then it's each for his own, survival of the fittest, feast before famine, and let's see how many feather-weights this thing can hold, boys.   A lot, it turns out, in a concurrent mix of species that is a bird watcher's delight.  Fruit and insect eaters, too.  Woodpeckers (downy & red-bellied), jays, nuthatches (brown-headed & white-breasted), multiple warblers I can't begin to identify, mocking birds, brown thrashers, towhees, and this year, oh glorious this year, my fabled bluebird family.

To be graced with a visit from two speckly-breasted first-year bluebirds on the morning of the day of a rainstorm is to have a good day.  I like to think they are the newbies that came into the world in the copper-roofed bird house last April.  See posts dated April 10-May15, 2011 for my "bluebird nest chronicles."   Some might say I need a life.  I think those who would say it need one.

What I do need are better photography skills, but how would I have time to take up yet another hobby, what with backyard longsitting and all?  The feeder birds always see me coming.  They seem to be at their most alert when they have to duck their heads into a dark hole for a bite to crunch.  Try as I might, I can't capture them at a moment when there are a dozen or more stoking up for a storm.   dkm

Monday, August 15, 2011

Omen Good or Evil?

  One of the many things I've learned from long-sitting in the backyard is that when I hear a lot of one kind of birdsong across days and weeks, it generally means a nest of that species is nearby.  First, it's the bravado of the male to attract a mate, then comes the bravado of the male as he protects his nest, (Is there a human likeness, here?), and finally, the bravado of the young as they learn the ways of the world.  

Bluebirds, with their quiet murmurs, are an exception.   The house wren's bubbly gurgle is the most stunning example, and the first to teach me the rule of thumb---but also true of cardinals, nuthatches, finches, and I'm guessing, many others.  

So, it was with eerie expectation that I began to notice, in mid-July, a regular and pervasive whistle of hawk overhead.  Earlier in the spring, before the leaves were out, I had noticed what I thought was a  Cooper's, but think now must have been a broad-winged hawk, sounding a forlorn whistle repeatedly from the tall oak tree in my neighbor's side yard.  I had also taken a snapshot of several large sloppy nests in the surrounding trees that I had presumed were the fickle work of squirrels.

Looking back, I think one of them belonged to that hawk I had observed, because one day late in July, two young broad-wings and their whistles paid me a long visit in and around the trees in the backyard.  I couldn't get very close with my little Nikon Coolpix, but if you look carefully, you can see them both on the same branch in the blurry shot.  Click on any of them for a closer look.  

My good neighbor, Maureen, above whose house the nests are, sent me two photos she took in her front yard of an adult with a fresh kill.  She said it stayed long enough for her to go in for her camera and return to creep up close for the Kodak moment.  She's a far better photographer than I.   Her hawk's tenaciousness, I think, is another indication that it might have been feeding young in the treetop.  Notice the furry tip of squirrel tail behind her hawk to get a hint at what the feast was. 

Maureen and I have decided it must surely be a good and protective omen to have a pair of hawks choose one's house above which to build their nest. dkm 

Whose nests?

Young Whistler

Whistler's Brother


Whistler's Mother?

Maureen's Protector


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blueberry Bluejay

The mosquito net I draped over the blueberry bush in July didn't have the effect I had hoped for.  It seemed to attract, not prevent birds---and several species at once---in different combinations of bluejay, robin, mockingbird, cardinal, bluebird, towhee, finch, wren, and chickadee.  At one point I counted eight birds inside the net.  Even greedy squirrels took advantage of the unexpected opportunity.

They all made gluttons of themselves right in front of me, unabashedly selecting only the ripest berries.  The squirrels rolled them around in their paws and might as well have smacked their lips.  The birds lifted their beaks, opened their throats, and glug-glug-glugged.  The bluejays called, "Caw! Caw!  Fruit eaters, come one, come all!   A nice lady put something over the blueberries to protect us from hawks!  Eat your fill, free of worry!  Too good to be true!  Plenty for all!"   

When I went near, they flapped their wings against the net trying to escape, making a case for entrapment.  I did have the decency to feel a twinge of guilt.   Eventually they all found their way out, and within a few days, it did work, because they stopped coming.  We got tons of berries for about two weeks and the bushes were still loaded.

After four pies, compared to last year's one without the net, I was feeling quite virtuous----until a fuzzy fledgling bluejay got caught in the net one afternoon, crying and flapping himself to exhaustion.  Even though I opened one side of the net to let him see his way out, he couldn't figure out that he needed to fly down, not up.  After about an hour of hearing his cries and flaps from inside the house, I could stand it no longer and went out to remove the net, but not before taking a picture of the poor thing.  His chest and shoulders were heaving with fatigue.  I'll not put the net out next year.  The bush has berries enough to share with those who need them more than we do.  dkm

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Room of One's Own

Home for over a month, I have yet to portray the final stop on my recent string of writing retreats. Tending the affairs of one's life, packed between formal writing trips, has a way of depriving one of blogging time.  But before I move on to new locations, let me not neglect the week on Ocean Isle, where my husband Moe and I had a beach vacation, golf trip, and writing retreat all rolled into one, thanks to the generosity of our good friends Tom and Pearl.

Except for being husband and wife professors of English Literature, not brother and sister heirs to vast fortune, Tom and Pearl McHaney are the Leo and Gertrude Stein of the southeastern quadrant of the USA.  Art and book collectors in their own right, they make it their business to know, encourage, and inspire everyone in their sphere of influence who has ever put hand to pen, paintbrush,  golf club, or garden hoe.  Both are fountains of literary knowledge, as well as writers themselves. I happen to be lucky enough to live on their street, which puts me in close proximity to their epicenter.  They don't know it yet, but one day soon I plan to request permission to take my hour of backyard spectatorship in one of Tom's outdoor garden rooms, and another hour in Pearl's full basement office, which sports four long walls lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves so efficiently organized that in a single instant, Pearl can get her hands on any book you suggest.  To be in her office is to be in the company of the world's great writers.  To be in the house of McHaney is to cross the paths of vast numbers of world travelers, artists, authors, actors, students, and literary personalities who have been the recipients of Pearl and Tom's gracious hospitality.

Back to our week on Ocean Isle.  Via an accommodating seaside house, all the guests of the McHaneys spent the days engaged in our respective pursuits, rejoining each other's company for happy hour and dinner.   The McHaneys provided for me a private "writing room" on the lower level of the house, where I felt like Virginia Woolf, ensconced in a room of my own.  There, I was able to polish off two more chapters of my current manuscript.  In spite of myself, this little work of fiction is destined to get finished, one writing retreat at a time.  Thank you, Pearl and Tom!  dkm
L to R: Tom, Pearl, Moe

Chef Pearl

L to R:  Emily, Pearl, Tom

View from a room of my own