Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 31: Tulips

Last day of January. We're entering the heart of winter. Apart from bundling up and enjoying outdoor snow activities as much as I can, another thing that helps stave off cabin fever is an indulgence in fresh flowers. This time of year, I'm unable to resist the colorful bunches of tulips that beckon just inside Hannaford's sliding doors. Orange, yellow, red, purple--the colors exhale a warm breath throughout my house to offset the whites and greys outside our windows.

While my outdoor garden has been reduced to dry stalks sticking above the snow, indoors the tight buds of tulips slowly open their petals to reveal the sensual beauty of each blossom's secret center, something Georgia O'Keefe might have painted. 

In a few months, after the snow melts and the air warms enough that I can rake off my flower beds, green spears of tulip leaves will poke up through the leaf litter, one of the first signs of incipient spring. But for now, the simple pleasure of my store-bought beauties will see me through. 

Red hothouse tulip,
your heart's an exploding star
to melt winter's blues.

January 30: Dance

Tonight was the Snow Ball, a benefit dance party at the Rockport Opera House to benefit the Ragged Mountain redevelopment project. Music was provided by The Awesome, an 80s cover band--perfect for the diverse crowd moving and shaking on the dance floor. Having grown up in the 80s, I feel kind of proprietary about the music--this was the stuff we used to dance to in the high school gym way back when, when it mattered who danced with whom. Now, older and supposedly wiser, I went with two women friends and we danced unselfconsciously wherever we happened to be, with whomever happened to be near us for almost the entire evening. My legs are sore, and my throat is hoarse from yelling back and forth above the music, but I also know I smiled so much my face hurts and had a great time letting loose. And I wasn't even dressed in 80s attire like many were--that off-the-shoulder Flashdance look, the slouchy boots, the leg warmers, teased hair in hair clips... Ah, the good old days.

It's funny how when you hear stuff you grew up with, music you forgot you even knew, it all comes rushing back to you--the words, the thrill of hearing that favorite song, the whole tone of an angst-ridden decade of one's life. Reminiscing with some people I went to high school with, we all seemed a little surprised by how much we enjoyed this trip down memory lane. It was certainly helped by the fact that half the town was crowded into the room, dancing, almost everyone there knowing everyone else and sharing with wild abandon this one winter night together. It's fitting in a cheesy 80s way, I think, to say something about the bonding power of music, especially rocking' music like the Talking Heads, Devo, and Madonna, songs that you can't help but move to. Everyone Wang Chung-ed, burned down the house, whipped it good, wore their sunglasses at night, and wanted to rule the world with whole-hearted enthusiasm. Several people said that our community needs to do something like this more often. As Whitney Houston (and The Awesome) sang, "Hey, I wanna dance with somebody, I wanna feel the heat with somebody..." Tonight a bunch of people thrashed around and sweated and smiled together, and it felt like a true community event. (And after, when we opened that door to step out into the 12 degree evening, I think it was the first time all day that cold slap in the face actually felt good.)

Winter dance party--
a packed hall, 80s music.
I was once sixteen.

Friday, January 29, 2010

January 29: The Moon and Mars

Although the moon isn't quite full, it's a breath-taking spectacle rising tonight, big white beaming face peeking over the craggy edge of Mount Battie. Earlier I had learned that the moon and Mars were in conjunction--very close to each other--and that apparently this was the closest we'd be to Mars all year. So after dark I drove into town so I could see them shining above the harbor. As I drove past the mountain, the moon shone against a clear, cold backdrop of deep blue sky, framed by the lacing silhouettes of tree branches, Orion tilted sideways above. And just to the left, Mars, a small, red, unblinking eye. From our perspective, of course, the moon is the largest planet we see, but here on Earth we've often judged wrongly our place in the solar system, let alone the universe.

It's hard to avoid the symbolism of Mars as the god of war. We're a country at war, though we tend to forget that sometimes. In that regard, too, it's all a matter of perspective. From my comfortable life here in coastal Maine, I have the luxury to gaze upon the faces of Mars and Moon, to write a little poem. Elsewhere, I know, it's not like this, and to many, the moon right now must seem like an unresponsive god, bright and full while so much pain and grief and hunger exists around them.

Full moon outshines Mars.
Ignoring distant beauty,
here below--war, grief.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28: Morning Crow

After several nights of sleeping poorly, this morning I was finally able to sleep in. At least until my cat, apparently alarmed that I was not following my usual morning ritual, jumped up on the bed and meowed repeatedly. When that didn't get me up, she then began attacking things on my nightstand. I put a stop to that with a pillow, and she eventually settled in to do what cats do best: sleep.

But just as I was beginning to blissfully drift back into gentle slumber myself, a crow started up outside the bedroom window with a low, gutteral "caw, caw, caw," repeated about ten times. Then another came flying in, cawing on a slightly different pitch. Then there were three. Three crows can make a real racket. I could hear the jays joining in, too, so I figured there must be something out there upsetting them, like a hawk or owl or cat. So then I had to get up. Some people need black coffee to wake them up, I just need a flock of loud black birds. Out the window, I couldn't pick out anything among the tangle of branches but the silhouettes of crows and jays, and a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree trunk. Were the corvids morally offended by the squirrels' amorous frivolity? When one crow settled onto the neighbor's lawn to aimlessly poke around in the grass, I figured whatever had stirred them up couldn't be that important. But it had gotten me out of bed, at least.

As I type, they're back, one in the same tree as before, renewing their cawing brigade up and down the river's foamy path. Now six or seven crows have flashed into view above the water, all diving at something. With that level of activity, I'd expect to see an eagle, at least, but I think it might be all about food. They seem to be chasing one of their own, who has either found something edible or committed a crow transgression.

And now the plot thickens--a black-and-white cat that I've never seen before just emerged from behind our shed. Was it a cat after all? But the crows ignore the cat, occupied by something upriver. Who can fathom the mysteries of what goes on in a crow's mind? A perfect bird nerd activity for me would be to spend the whole day in my backyard Twittering about the crows' activities.

Counting crows this morning has reminded me of the traditional fortune-telling poem. This is how I learned it:
One for sorrow, two for mirth,
three for a wedding, four for a birth,
five for silver, six for gold,
seven for a secret never to be told.

But I just Googled it and found a longer version:
One for sorrow, two for joy,
three for a girl, four for a boy,
five for silver, six for gold,
seven for a secret never to be told,
eight for a wish, nine for a kiss,
ten for a time of joyous bliss.

However many crows are out there right now, they're certainly harboring a secret that they'll never tell me, at least until I learn to speak Crow. You never really know what they're up to.

Awakened by crows,
I ponder their dark secrets,
their strange augury.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January 27: Mom's Otter

My mother called me today to tell me that there was an otter on the river. She said I should write about it in my blog. "But I didn't see it," I told her. "You did. Why don't you write about it?" "I don't know how to write a haiku," she said, despite being the one of the only people I know who reads this blog every single day. (Hey, if your own mother doesn't read your blog, who will? So I'm not complaining.) I explained to her the basic rule: 5-7-5. A little while later she called back with her poem, and I realized that I had forgotten the part about it being 5, 7, and 5 syllables for the haiku's three lines:

Sleek and shiny fur gliding,
nose forward, body trailed by a vee.
Otter owns the winter river.

But I actually like the idea of a haiku composed of 5, 7 and 5 words--a fun variation on the theme. Nice poem, Mom.

I talked to her again this evening, and she said she hadn't read my blog yet. I said I hadn't written it yet. "Write about the otter," she said again. "But," I countered, "you already did."

Photo courtesy of Hal Korber/Pennsylvania Game Commission

Although I didn't see the otter, and my mother has already written a poem about it, I am in fact now inspired to write a few words about otters. My family has seen them several times on the Megunticook River, most often in winter when we've observed them up on the ice eating fish. They're bigger animals than you expect, and powerful--in the same family as weasels and wolverines--but also the most playful. I've come across long snow slides on banks in the northern woods, which the otters had obviously used repeatedly. They are tireless players. At the Seattle aquarium, which features both sea and river otters, I stood transfixed for at least an hour in front of each tank, amazed at the creatures' non-stop, rollicking energy. To top it off, my sister's married name is van Otterloo, which has, of course, led to the discovery of much otter-related paraphernalia. So we're kind of into otters in my family. Hence, I think, my mother's insistence. And sometimes it doesn't hurt to do what your mother wants. (But because this one's about otters, it's a little silly.)

I ought to have seen
my mother's swimming otter--
might have inspired me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 26: Flood

I woke this morning to the sound of rain dripping off the eaves and ringing against the propane tanks right outside the bedroom window. Looking out that window, I was struck first by what a morass of snow, mud, dead leaves, and branches our backyard has become thanks to this torrential downpour combined with gale winds. But at least we're up on a bluff. Part of our neighbors' yard is in the river's floodplain, and the mighty Megunticook was running high today. The normally placid waterway had swollen to fill its banks and was dramatically spilling over its edges. A visible side-stream had carved its own course through the remnant snow in our neighbor's yard. Outside, the river roared wild and fresh in my ears. Crows, the only visible birds, seemed invigorated by all this water action.

Later, I learned that my parents were dealing with their own water issues. Thanks to a leaky foundation and a power outage that caused the sump pump to shut off, they had been up all night dealing with a flooding basement. My mother sounded exhausted. Mentally multiplying what she had contended with by a factor of 1,000, I think I got a tiny glimpse into what it must be like for those who live in a true flood zone, like along the Missouri or Mississippi. At least my parents' efforts hadn't involved sandbags, watermarks 6 feet up the wall, or simply getting washed away. And as my mother put it, their problem was literally nothing compared to what the people in post-earthquake Haiti are dealing with right now. It helps to look at what seems like a domestic crisis with a global perspective. But that doesn't mean you can ease up your efforts with the water vacuum.

Driving past the Goose River Golf Course in Rockport this afternoon, I was a bit in awe of how much of it was underwater. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought those sodden lowlands were a shallow pond. But while marveling at the transformed golf course, a memory from more than 20 years ago suddenly resurfaced in my head: driving I-40 in Arkansas shortly after the Mississippi had flooded, mile after mile of fields covered with a thin sheet of water, and every so often, a house out in the middle of all that water, an unnatural island. Every day something reminds me to be grateful for what I have.

Though the rain has stopped now, the river still gushes, a churning spate pouring over the dam--our own white-noise machine turned up on high volume. The slower, wider section upriver of the dam offers up a flat mixture of rain and ice that looks more liquid than solid. Only a duck should trust that surface.

Rain falling on snow--
the world slowly made liquid.
All washes away.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January 25: January Thaw

With a week left in the month, this year's January Thaw squeaked in under the wire. I woke to rain dripping off the eaves. Twelve hours later I can still hear rain dripping off the eaves. When I drove into the (unpaved) Land Trust parking lot this morning, my brakes had no effect on my momentum whatsoever; instead of turning to park, the car just coasted forward on the slick surface of what seemed to be sheer ice. I finally hit a patch of bare dirt at the bottom of the sloping lot, where I was able to turn around and get a grip, so to speak. I parked elsewhere today, after I wiggled my way back out of the Parking Lot from Hell (Hell after it froze over, of course). 

The rain brought birds back to my feeder again: titmice and chickadees visited throughout the day. The river ice looked sodden and very unsafe. "Rotten" is the term, I believe.

Wind picked up throughout the day, making late afternoon errands an adventure. I could feel my car being buffeted sideways on Route One, actually had to steer against the gusts. The one good thing: I'd been meaning to get a car wash, but now the rain has done it for me.

And luckily there was enough snow that the rain and warm temps haven't reduced everything to a muddy puddle. Some winter still remains; it's just sopping wet and not so much fun to play in right now.

I wake to dripping,
but I won't delude myself
that winter's over.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

January 24: Ducks, Laughter

With cloud cover and no wind, today was even warmer than yesterday, perfect for a walk on the Rockland Breakwater. Calm seas at low tide made it easy to get good looks at two seals sunning themselves on an exposed rock. And ducks--at least for the brief moments they showed themselves between dives. Buffleheads popped up and down like pool toys, black ducks foraged in the shallows close to shore, and red-breasted mergansers cruised past, showing off punk hairdos that got wilder with each trip underwater.

And long-tailed ducks gabbed away in floating groups of magically shifting numbers, individuals suddenly surfacing where no duck had been before. Or entire rafts all disappearing at the same time, right on cue. Focusing my binoculars on a duck that suddenly became a widening circle of ripples on the water, I was reminded of a stanza from the Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird": "I do not know which to prefer,/ The beauty of inflections/ Or the beauty of innuendoes,/ The blackbird whistling/ Or just after." Only my version would end with the lines, "The duck floating on the surface/ Or just after."

Photo by Wolfgang Wander, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Male long-tailed ducks in their winter plumage are beautiful birds: predominately white, with a grey and black cheek patch, pink and black bill, black body, and spectacularly long black tail feathers that they can twitch like a split whip. These are pretty boys who seem to spend much of their winter vacation preening, posturing, diving, and making a lot of noise. Long-tailed ducks were called "oldsquaws" for many years, because the males' yodeling sessions sound like a bunch of gabbing women. (The term "squaw" has since been recognized as offensive to many Native Americans, precipitating not only an official name change for the duck but also many places in Maine.) If I remember my high school Latin correctly, their Genus name Clangula means something like "full of noise." To me their calls sound like musical gobbles--"Ow owlup, ow owlup!"--and never fail to make me smile as I try to imagine what these chatty drakes have to say to one another. Are they comparing notes on a nearby group of females or where to find the best mussels? Reminiscing about their Arctic summers? Talking trash about who has the prettiest feathers?

Later today, I came across a cartoon that made me laugh so hard I couldn't stop. I was crying, unable to speak. It completely set me off, so that for hours after even something mildly funny was enough to send me into uncontrollable laughter again. In the throes of my own raucous laughing, I thought of those ducks babbling away at the breakwater. Maybe they were simply sharing jokes. What better way to while away the long winter?

Yodeling sea ducks,
I want to share your gossip,
hear Arctic secrets.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

January 23: The Birds

I woke early with a whole beautiful sunny winter's day before me to do whatever I wanted. So I started off by going on a run to my parents' house, about 2.5 miles away. I felt warm enough because I was moving, and safe enough because the shoulder was well plowed, but hadn't anticipated how that cold air would feel hitting my lungs. On my run, despite by belabored breathing, I heard enough birds that I made an effort to keep track: blue jay, robin, cardinal, downy woodpecker, crow, white-breasted nuthatch.

So a good run, but my breathing needed a little recovery time. While hanging out "recovering" with my parents, we had front row seats as a bird drama played out on the Megunticook River: two young eagles repeatedly dove on an injured Canada goose in the open water just below the bridge. At one point, an eagle landed in a pine tree right in the backyard, causing my mother to unexpectedly curse very loudly in her excitement. The goose lived to see another day; perhaps the eagles were just toying with it, or testing its strengths and weaknesses for a future tandem attack.

Later, my friend Brian picked me up for a bird outing in Belfast, with a brief stop at Chase's Daily, of course, for one of their amazing pear almond muffins. We walked down to the Footbridge, from which we quickly picked out several groups of goldeneyes bobbing and preening on the Passagassawakeag River. As far as I could tell, every goldeneye we could see was a Barrow's, an unusual winter visitor but one regularly found at that spot on the river. We got good looks, close enough to see their golden eyes, the crescent-shaped facial marking on the males, and the orange bills of the females.

Photo by John Good - NPS Photos

On the roof of a nearby industrial building, hundreds of gulls (and a handful of black ducks) hung out, presumably resting and warming themselves in the sun. Suddenly, they all lifted off and flew over our heads in a swirling mass--just like the flocks in "The Birds." I kept looking for what might have scared them up--an eagle, perhaps--but no luck, even though this happened twice while we were there. The cool thing was that the second time, I was able to pick out an Iceland gull amid the milling hordes of herring gulls. Like the Barrow's goldeneye, this white-winged species is another winter visitor from that Arctic that's uncommon enough that I was particularly excited to see it. Especially amid the craziness of the massive gull lift-off.

Photo by Brian Willson.

Before heading back to Camden, we made another stop at a new preserve upriver, acquired by Coastal Mountains Land Trust in December. We followed a snowmobile trail to some old farm fields, only spotting three chickadees and a meandering line of tiny rodent tracks. But as we were leaving, a red-tailed hawk soared overhead in the blue sky, its tail bright red in the sun. Seemed a good omen on which to end our outing.

Knowing winter's long,
humans and birds soak up sun
on a day like this.

Friday, January 22, 2010

January 22: Persistence

The snow has now drifted high enough in front of my office window that a squirrel has discovered it can access my window feeder. I heard some scrabbling on the wall this morning and looked out, curious. A squirrel, looking particularly fluffy and cute in its winter coat, looked back at me.

Or rather, I thought it was looking back at me, but I slowly realized it was really eyeing the bird feeder in front of me on the other side of the window, sizing up its potential approach. The snow below the feeder was spattered with little squirrel prints and seed hulls. This squirrel was onto something big.

After I sat back down, I heard scratching again, looked up, and laughed out loud to see this at my window:

In fact, I'm still chuckling to see it again. The brazen rodent slipped off the window frame a few times, and got scared off more than once by my arm raising the camera, but eventually reached the mother lode.

Its persistence was rewarded, albeit rather briefly, because the feeder was so small it would lose its balance and have to hop off. But it kept coming back. It eventually got so used to my presence that a simple knock on the window had no effect. So I was able to observe it rather closely, until apparently it felt its exertions were not worth the meager results and it swished away to seek easier fodder. Still, I've got to hand it to squirrels--they've got brains the size of acorns, but they know how to focus every little brain cell to figure out how to get what they want. I've personally seen very few bird feeders--maybe two--that were genuinely squirrel-proof.

Squirrel in my feeder--
is it the food or challenge
that motivates you?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January 21: Robins

Contrary to popular belief, it's not all that unusual to see robins in the winter. Yes, all robins fly south when the seasons change, but for robins north of us--say, in Newfoundland--this is south. This winter, however, robins have been few and far between. The Thomaston-Rockland Christmas Bird Count was remarkable for its paucity of tallied robins. And although a small flock usually forages in my neighborhood each winter, I don't think I've personally seen a robin for two full months, maybe more. Until this morning. Wending my way back to the office on Camden's side streets, I almost drove into a snowbank as I caught sight of a group of a ten or so unmistakable birds scattered in the trees of a backyard, their rosy breasts bright against the backdrop of snow. Finally, some robins!

These Canadian robins are noticeably bigger and darker than their southern counterparts, making them look even more dramatic when they flock together in a snowy tree. In winter robins shift from sucking worms out of our lawns to foraging for fruit in crabapple and mountain ash trees, sumac stands, and berry bushes. In this time of year when finding a territory and a mate aren't the driving imperatives, the birds flock together--partly for the "safety in numbers" factor, but also because many eyes are better than two when looking for a food source. They aren't the only species to do this, either. Winter robins will sometimes be accompanied by bluebirds, their thrush cousins--another odd but not rare sight in these cold climes.

"Newfoundland" robin. Photo courtesy of Luke Seitz.

Although they aren't harbingers of spring just yet, they certainly brightened my morning--almost as much as seeing the first sunshine and blue sky in four days. In just a few months, however, we'll start seeing these sturdy birds gathering by the dozens on thawing fields, lawns, and golf courses. And then we'll start hearing their cheery, chirruping songs in the trees. Those robins will be "our" robins, returned for another nesting season. The hardier Canadian visitors will have headed back north once again.

Winter's festive flock:
robins eating crabapples.
No signs of spring yet.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 20: Snow Effect

Between snow showers today the sun made a brief appearance, illuminating a landscape utterly altered by three days of almost constant snow fall. Huge mounds of plowed snow blocked my view of the parking lot. Tree boughs were laden with layers of wet snow, and the apple trees, still bearing their frozen fruit, looked positively sculptural. A pair of crows flew high above the trees, black against white. Across the river, the craggy constant of Mount Battie rose above the trees. I couldn't resist stepping out to take some photos of this fresh new world.

My photo above is no work of art, but I enjoyed how the muted light made the patch of blue sky above the summit, the soft green of a fir tree, and the subtle russet of the apples look hand-colored. A little bit like those old postcards, only with sharper contrast provided by modern camera technology.

Later, while reviewing some photographs a co-worker took today of an easement property, I couldn't help but be struck by how the winter light transformed them into stark and beautiful black-and-whites, despite the fact that, like mine, they were technically color images.

Coastal Mountains Land Trust photo

This evening as I was driving home, I turned on my high beams. The road in my headlights instantly changed from a flat white path bounded by dark trees to a breath-taking, glowing white tunnel filled with a flurry of flakes. It felt like I was driving through a living snow globe. Once again, the snow offered up an unexpected shift in perspective--a simple transformation of the ordinary world into one of those moments of beauty that help sustain us in dark times.

Light, dark, snow, shadow--
the world shifts before our eyes,
beyond our control.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

January 19: Ski Tracks

All day it has snowed--constant, slow, heavy flakes drifting ceaselessly down from the dim sky. All day I watched it fall, safe in my office. My only venture outside, once I got to work this morning, was to sweep the snow off my bird feeder and refill it, an act which produced immediate gratification in the form of some chatty titmice stopping by for a snack. Snow piled up on my car. The path to the parking lot softly filled with wet flakes. Meetings were cancelled. The mail was late. The world outside seemed muffled, buried as it was under this heavy white blanket.

When I left work, snow shone in the lights of the parking lot and in my headlights. Falling, falling, falling,  and it's going to keep falling through tomorrow, according to the weather report. Luckily the pile of powder in my driveway was light enough to just plow through with my car. Safely parked, I headed to the front porch for the snow shovel. No footprints were visible on the sidewalk, but two parallel lines ran past the house and down the street. Ski tracks. I could even see faint circles where the skier had planted his or her poles. The thought of someone blithely skiing through the neighborhood as I was working away right up the street somehow lightened my attitude toward the inexorable snow, even as I set to work clearing the driveway yet again. At least someone was able to get out and enjoy this storm, just as I had done yesterday on snowshoes.

Getting the shovel,
I see twin paths in the snow--
someone enjoyed this.

Monday, January 18, 2010

January 18: Snowstorm, Beech Hill

My friend Brian got new snowshoes last weekend, so we decided to give them a test run on Beech Hill in today's snowstorm. We were the first ones on the trail, and the soft fresh powder had filled in all older tracks. Snow was still falling heavily, so our own oval tracks filled in behind us, slowly erasing signs of our passing. All around us bare trees stood silently, graceful lines of trunks and curving branches exposed in the stark winter woods. We marked the paths of a few squirrels and one rabbit. A barred owl has been seen on the hill by several people in the past few weeks, and a snowy owl would have fit right in on the snow-swept barrens. But all we encountered on our outing was a handful of much smaller and less dramatic birds: two brown creepers spiraling up trunks just off-trail and two chickadees energetically flitting across our path.

Breaking a (mostly uphill) trail is rigorous work, but it felt so good to be out in the woods in the snow, dressed warmly, in good company, that I didn't even mind falling several times in the drifts. It was about embracing winter and the transformation it brings to the landscape. And how we have to adapt to those changes to fully appreciate them. There's nothing like being out in the elements when you're well prepared for it. A snowstorm creates a certain intimacy with the landscape, shutting out the rest of the world. As I was lying back in the snow after one of my spills ("imbalances" might be a better word), looking up at lacing tree tops against the white sky, infinite snowflakes swirling down on me in a weird 3-D effect, the shift in perspective was a thrilling one. I almost wanted to remain there in my snow bed, enjoying the show.

Photo by Brian Willson.

Elsewhere, a pattern of snow on a branch looked just like a turkey track. Stands of staghorn sumac held up their velvety red clusters in offering to the sky. We found an acorn that had been tucked into the hollow of a small tree by some well-intentioned squirrel long ago. Along the trail we could hear wind rushing in the spruce grove at the summit, the distant Owls Head foghorn, the patter of snowflakes falling on branches and dead leaves. But we couldn't see the ocean from any point, only scarves of snow sweeping over the trees and soft contours of the near landscape. A place very familiar to us both was revealing a new face.

At one point on the way down, the sun tried to break through the clouds. But even the sun was too weak to overcome the storm. The solar disk hung there like a strange planetary apparition for a moment and then was gone. Such light casts no shadows. Dark, dead stalks against white fields offered a sense of contrast, but no softness, or color--except in the strange, wind-carved crevices in a some drifts that shone with the eerie blue light of glacial ice.

Snow drops a curtain,
transforms the path through trees, fields.
In beauty we walk.

Poetic Note: The last line of today's poem is meant to echo a traditional Navajo prayer chant, parts of which I've included below:

In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 17: Tiny Dancer

Despite the best intentions of my sister and her husband to offer my niece Fiona non-gender-specific toys and clothing, at 3-1/2 years old, she has proven to be a very girly girl. Her favorite color is pink, she can name all the Disney princesses (can you?), and she spends entire days wearing a satin Cinderella gown or a pink tutu. (I've had the pleasure of escorting the Princess to the store around the corner, where she hammed it up and elicited lots of smiles from other shoppers.)

This morning, after Fiona put on her pink dress, floral tights, and ballet slippers, my brother-in-law turned on the classical music station so she could dance. First she danced with him so she could show us how he dipped her, but then she insisted on a center stage solo. She has a child's natural sense of rhythm, and entertained us with some very creative moves--spins, leaps, struts, tippy-toes, the works. We have no idea where she learned this stuff--apparently her first (and last) ballet lesson was a fiasco. What most delighted us, though, was the intense expression on her face as she performed for us. This was serious stuff for our ballerina diva.

Dancing little girl--
so young but so serious,
life's stage before her.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

January 16: Vole in the Road

Driving home from the gym last night, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a black and white cat in the middle of the road. I couldn't figure out why it was sitting there--was it staring at something? waiting for another cat across the road? or simply hanging out in snowless spot? Thankfully it was smart enough to dash up a driveway as soon as my car came close.

At the bottom of the hill, however, while paused at the stop sign, I saw something that helped make some sense of the cat in the road. In my headlights I watched a vole run down the center of the road and head slowly toward the sidewalk. As I made the turn, I expected the vole to keep running, as they do, and disappear in the roadside snow bank. But it wandered a little bit, so I actually had to stop and wait for it to get out of the way. I encouraged the vole to hurry up  before another car came along--a car that might not see a little creature the size of a fist and the same color as the dirty road. That cat had the right idea, just in the wrong spot. Though for all I know, the side streets of Camden are swarmed by voles every night. (This image can get kind of creepy put in the context of yesterday's post. One vole: cute. Many voles: eek!)

My one unexpected and frantic vole, scurrying around like those toy hamsters that were the big Christmas gift this year, brought a smile to my face--a different kind of joy, of course, than the creature might have brought to the cat. Or the owls, active and courting now, flying through the darkness in the neighborhoods of Camden and beyond.

Vole in the headlights
avoids cats and owls, for now.
Small creature, short life.

Friday, January 15, 2010

January 15: Ladybugs

I recently had a conversation with a friend about ladybugs. Her house has periodically been swarmed by them this winter. Having lived in a house with frequent ladybug infestations, I could sympathize. As she put it, "One ladybug is cute. You let it crawl on your finger, you say the verse to it: 'Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home...' and it flies away. Cute. But lots of ladybugs? Not so cute."

Her line of reasoning that too much of anything that's cute in singular is not cute in multiples led her to compare ladybugs to puppies: "If you have one puppy, that's great. Cute puppy. But 40 puppies," she says, extending the analogy, "is too much. Especially when they start eating your shoes and peeing and pooping and then dying all over the house." I couldn't properly respond to this reasoning mostly because I was laughing too hard. But also because she's right, at least about the ladybugs. When their little dead bodies start piling up in your sink, or when you try to vacuum up clusters of them and they give off that weird, bad smell, they are no longer cute, harmless little bugs. Even my soft-hearted sister, who used to collect things with ladybugs on them and almost got a ladybug tattoo, agrees.

A true daughter of her mother, my niece models the "cute ladybug" motif.

Turns out the ladybugs that infest our houses in the winter are technically not even ladybugs, so even a ladybug lover can be forgiven for being repelled by a cluster of them. They're actually Asian lady beetles, brought here to help control pests on fruit crops. Thanks a lot, Department of Agriculture. I hope your windows are covered now too. I've also learned that they don't breed in your house, thank god, so the ones that are "hibernating" with you in the winter will also leave you in the spring if you haven't already vacuumed them up. Also, they're particularly drawn to light-colored houses.

Saying the ladybug verse to a cluster of Asian lady beetles unfortunately does not make them all fly away.

One ladybug: cute.
Cluster on the windowsill:
swarming, smelly mass.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

January 14: The Little Things

Some ordinary days end up being special because a lot of little things add up to creating one big positive vibe for the day. Like today. When I got up this morning and looked out the window, I noticed the river was steaming. Although I knew the steam simply meant that the churning froth of dark water was actually less cold than the frigid air, I couldn't help but think that if I ran outside and jumped into the river, I'd experience the same glorious warmth of that hot spring we used to hike to deep in an old growth forest in Oregon. Skinny-dipping is fun, but skinny-dipping in naturally hot water amid giant Douglas firs as snow falls around you is an unparalleled experience.

As I drove to work, I noticed that some of the ledges on Mount Battie sport giant icicles that look like the jagged teeth of the Abominable Snowman on "Rudolph." The mountain baring its icy teeth--I like that image as the face of this often inhospitable winter world.

Then, when I was walking into my office, I heard the two-note love song of a chickadee Romeo. Despite the fact that my car thermometer read 11 degrees, he had courting on his mind. Who can't help but smile at that? Silly bird. He went on and on. In my head I crafted a new version of Cole Porter's song, now called Too Darn Cold: "It's too darn cold, it's too darn cold... When the thermometer goes way down and the shivering's getting real old, think romance, in ski pants? No..." (Sorry, Cole.)

Later at work I watched the red-tailed hawk once more winging its way up the river. And later still, a rosy glow of sunset splashed the sky and river ice with pink. Nothing extraordinary. No epiphanies or magic moments. But a day with a good spirit.

Chickadee love songs
as mountain bares icy teeth--
crazy winter world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 13: Coffee

This afternoon I got to watch a coffee roaster in action. Watching the process of how some of our edibles come into being can be fascinating and a bit arcane. Examples: candy canes, maple syrup, beer. And coffee. Abby, the woman in charge of roasting the beans, fired up the shiny, black, propane-heated roaster. As the digital read-out quickly rose from 49 degrees to 406, I kept thinking about Ray Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451, so titled because that's the temperature at which books burn. Fortunately there's really no analogy between burning books and roasting coffee beans, although Abby did say that the smoke emitted by the roaster smells like burnt toast.

She poured about 12 pounds of organic Columbian coffee beans into the roaster, and then the fun began. The process took about 15 minutes altogether, during which we could see through a tiny window as the pale green beans turned cinnamony and then darker and darker brown. The beans snapped like popcorn as their shells split (apparently there's "first crack" and "second crack"--and at what time and temperature each stage happens gets carefully recorded by the roaster). Abby checked on the color every so often by drawing out a little tube-shaped scoop from the side of the roaster that would pick up a few beans. As she got near the end of the cycle, she checked color constantly. At some ideal point known only to her, she pulled a lever and all the beans spilled out into an attached tray with revolving arms that mixed and cooled them. They no longer looked like weird, split pea-like seeds, but real coffee of such a beautiful rich chocolate color that I wanted to scoop handfuls into my mouth. I did eat a few of the crisp beans for fun, and they tasted like coffee, of course, with a hint of burnt toast.

For me the most fascinating part of the process--besides the mesmerizing experience of watching those dark beans swirl around and around in the tray as they cooled--was checking out the big, 150-lb. burlap sacks full of as-yet unroasted beans from around the world and enjoying the tactile sensation of running my hand through mounds of the beans inside them. Columbia, Sumatra, Java, Brazil, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Bali were all represented in those slumping bags, some printed with colorful images. Seeing all those exotic places represented, I couldn't help but think of the hundreds of species of birds in each of these countries. This coffee was all organic and certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which doesn't require coffee to be shade-grown per se but does encourage plant diversity in plantations. So I have to hope that the land on which these beans were grown continues to support birds, and that these beans were fruited under the bright wings of macaws, tanagers, and oropendulas.

Scarlet Tanager at his summer home in Maine. Photo by Brian Willson.

Steaming hot coffee.
Tropical orioles flit
above ripened beans.

Note: The roasters I visited today, Green Tree Coffee, donate $1 to Coastal Mountains Land Trust for every pound they sell of one of four beautifully packaged Coastal Maine blends. You can buy their coffee via their website, or later this winter at their retail store opening on Route One in Lincolnville Beach.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

January 12: Roadkill

Haiku are often Zen-like in that they capture the ephemerality of life, those moments that are here and then gone. The undercurrent of that train of thought is that we are all mortal, that our time on the planet is brief and should therefore be appreciated, even savored. I was reminded of this today as I swerved around a freshly-killed squirrel in the road. One minute that squirrel was a living creature, waving the fluffy plume of its tail, thinking about an oak tree across the road. The next, it was a grey body on the asphalt. To make matters worse, a little further down the road another animal lay dead on the center lines, a long, dark creature that may have been a mink. I think I've seen more minks dead than alive.

Road-killed animals always make me wince, and then I often say a short prayer for the soul of the animal. It seems only proper to pay this small respect to another living being whose life was cut short by something beyond its control and of which it had no real comprehension. Our roads and cars are intrusions on the natural space of the planet, causing millions of these small deaths every day. And I'm not trying to sound self-righteous--I drive around just as much as the next person--but to simply state a fact. A fact that not only makes the lives of these animals more precious, but also our own lives. We share this mortality. And it could happen just like that. So when I pass roadkill, besides giving a little thought to the creature lying there, dying there, in such an undignified way, I also can't help thinking about myself, taking a moment to inwardly rejoice that I am alive. And hopefully, the dead animal will become food for another animal, a scavenging crow or an opportunistic fox, thereby perpetuating the chain of life.

Road-killed squirrel, may
you end up in the black urn
of a crow's sleek throat.

Poetic note: I'm not happy with this haiku stylistically, because the lines are enjambed, and there is no kigo, or seasonal marker. But the sentiment is exactly what I wanted to express. Sometimes we have to sacrifice form for function--or in this case, take some poetic license.

Monday, January 11, 2010

January 11: A Bird in the Hand

My husband Paul recently sent an email to his co-workers delighting in the fact that he was hearing a chickadee singing its two-note "fee-bee" courting song. He saw it as an early sign of spring, something to give us hope as we shiver through the next few months. (I personally think it was just a typically over-eager male.)

While I haven't heard any chickadee love songs at my work feeder, I was pleasantly surprised this morning to observe a flurry of feeding activity there. The little guys can be quite fickle about their feeding stations. They can also be picky about their seeds, sometimes picking up and discarding several in succession until they find just the right one to carry away.

One of Paul's co-workers shared a story with him today about how after reading the chickadee email, he was encouraged to go out and buy a 50-pound bag of black sunflower seed. This past weekend before he filled the feeders, he sat on his deck with an open handful of seed. Here's how he describes what happened: "For five minutes nothing happened. Then three chickadees came investigating, doing reconnaissance swoops through the nearby trees... After ten long minutes, one jumped on my finger, glared at me angrily, grabbed a seed and took off... I was amazed and pleased. Never had that happen before. Felt like St. Francis." Saint Francis is, of course, the patron saint of birds, often depicted with outstretched arms bedecked with his feathered friends. According to legend, his "sister birds" would flock to him while he preached of the god who gave them the gift of feathers and flight.

My husband was of course thrilled that his email had indirectly contributed to such a memorable experience. There's something special about having a wild creature perch on you, as if you've been chosen somehow: the blur of wingbeat, something very light but very alive clinging to your finger with tiny feet for just an instant, then a cheeky glance from a beady black eye before the bird grabs a seed and flits away...

From your patient palm,
it takes the seed offering--
a form of blessing.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

January 10: Breakwater Walk

Two of my New Year's resolutions were to spend more time outdoors and to step up my exercise regime. I believe that when you put a resolution out there, you are given the means to fulfill it. So when my friend Brian called this morning to ask if I wanted to walk the Rockland Breakwater, I remembered those resolutions and had to agree, despite temperatures in the teens.

It's about a one-mile walk from the parking lot to the lighthouse at the end of the long jetty. As you walk out atop its giant granite blocks, which are fit together like pieces of a massive 3-D puzzle, you're basically walking on a stone bridge that ends in the middle of the outer harbor. Sea ducks, loons, gulls, and guillemots bob in the waves on either side of you. Depending on the weather and tides, waves sometimes crash against the seaward side of the wall to spray across the rocks (and you), or an unusually high tide may have creeped over the farthest end, leaving the lighthouse rising above the waves as if it were a little island unto itself. The ferries to Vinalhaven and North Haven go to and fro. In the summer, lobster boats check their traps within shouting distance, and sailboats breeze past. You're conscious of being exposed to the elements--people have died from being struck by lightning out there. And no matter what the season, there's always a penetrating wind that seems to carry the force of the entire Atlantic Ocean behind it.

This morning's walk out wasn't too bad. We were both dressed warmly enough and the wind was at our backs. Most of the rocky surface remained relatively ice-free, enabling us to pick our way with relative ease. Long-tailed ducks gobbled nearby, and a little guillemot in its winter white plumage posed for a photograph. We even hung out for awhile in the lee of the lighthouse, trying to absorb some sunlight and warmth before the walk back in the teeth of the wind.

The wind's teeth this morning were those of a shark. My body was warm enough, but because part of my face was exposed, every sinus in my head ached. My contacts blurred in the frigid blasts of the northwest wind. I would like to have better admired the beauty of the snow-covered Camden Hills in the distance behind the Samoset Resort, but I couldn't really see. At one point, a loon surfaced quite close but disappeared before I could point it out to photographer Brian. I kept mistaking buoys for ducks. But there's nothing for it but to keep on walking, and eventually we stepped down off the wall onto the beach. I think both of us were a little pleased with ourselves for enduring, though really, what choice did we have? And this was for fun, after all.

We walk on ocean,
on urchins, on ice-sprayed stones--
cold realm of the gulls.

January 9: Winter Birding Excursion

I finally got a chance today to spread my wings a bit and indulge in a bird outing in southern Maine with my friend Brian. Our target species: the harlequin duck, a bird which would be a lifer for Brian. In my opinion, it's also the most beautiful of the many kinds of duck we can see in Maine--the males are mostly slate blue with a touch of rose, featuring intricate white facial and body markings. They love surf, and spend winters hanging out in small pods on the edge of crashing waves along the southern Maine coast, often quite close to shore. One of the best ways to see them well is to take a chilly walk along the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, but I hoped to find them a little bit closer to home on this jaunt.

But first, a short side trip. We purposefully drove south via Route One through Warren to check out a poultry farm that attracts a fair number of our wintering eagle population. Literally dozens of bald eagles are regularly counted along the St. George River each winter. Many of them hang out at a big poultry farm on Route One to scavenge the farm waste there. Today was no exception. We counted maybe 33 bald eagles in the immediate vicinity of the farm. It looked like those photos you see of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Reserve in Alaska, with an eagle posed on every branch. The eagles were also joined by several ravens and crows, as well as one red-tailed hawk. A dramatic start to our morning, especially as some of the eagles were vocalizing. You never get used to seeing that many eagles all in one place.

First stop for the harlequins was Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth, an outcropping of striated metaphoric rock that looks a bit like petrified wood decorated with colorful tide pools. We scanned flocks of common eiders looking for a king eider that's been hanging out there--someone saw it yesterday, in fact--but no dice. After much scanning while enduring a bone-chilling wind, however, I did manage to find one male harlequin bobbing offshore. We risked life and limb walking on frost-slimed rocks to get a closer look--and Brian got his life bird! At the next stop, Two Lights State Park, we were even more fortunate to find a group of eight harlequins--four males, four females--also close to shore. The ducks entertained us by repeatedly ducking underwater simultaneously, as if on cue. The males engaged in a little posturing, as well, chasing each other and otherwise showing off while the females looked on, probably thinking what females usually do when they witness such antics. (Brian got some distant photos of these birds and others we saw today, which he will post on his Bird Report blog.)

Harlequin ducks photographed in 2003 along the Marginal Way

So, mission accomplished without even having to drive all the way to Ogunquit--a satisfying day in terms of birds, and in the company of a good friend. We even got an added nature-watching bonus when a big, healthy-looking doe crossed the road in front of us near Crescent Beach State Park in Scarborough. Though it's difficult to say exactly who was really observing whom, for she stood in the woods watching us for quite a while as we watched and photographed her from the roadside.

Some things are best shared:
winter ducks bobbing in surf,
eagles perched in pines.

Friday, January 8, 2010

January 8: Treadmill

I try to run three days a week. Unless one of my running days is on a weekend, this activity takes place after work. I am not a morning person. Getting up early enough to run before work would probably render me incapable of actually doing my job. So I run after work, which spring through fall is something I look forward to. In spring and early summer, I keep track of the birds I hear singing along my running route and listen for the peepers and wood frogs as I pass a little marsh. Depending on how late I get started, I might enjoy the last rays of sun hitting the Megunticook ridgeline as I hit the stretch along the river. On one street, there's a pair of golden retrievers, one young and one old, that always run to the edge of their lawn and bark at me, tails wagging, as retrievers are wont to do. In fall, I appreciate the glorious foliage and crisp air that's a little easier on the lungs. One big lawn by the river hosts a lingering flock of geese that always raise their heads as I pant past. But by late fall, it gets too dark to run outside after work. So I'm relegated to the track and treadmill at the Y until the days lengthen again.

Tonight I ran on the treadmill. Rather than wind in the leaves and birdsong, ESPN and music from my iPod accompanied my exercise. Other people sweated and struggled all around me. After dark the big windows that face the woods behind the Y are invisible behind the reflection of the exercise room. So I tried to focus on Sports Center, thankfully close captioned, so the miles would seem to go by faster. I don't mind the experience. I usually see people I know, so there's the fun social aspect, and I'm usually out of there in an hour. But I can't help but long for my usual running route, even the steep uphills and the barking dogs. Indoor exercise, especially under fluorescent lighting, just seems kind of unnatural.

Snow, darkness. Inside:
treadmill rolls under my feet
In my head: trees, birds.

PS: Seems like the whole country is experiencing the chill of winter right now, even the deep South. My friend Pat Palmer recently arrived in Naples, Florida, and is not happy with the fact that the temperatures aren't much higher there than back home in Massachusetts. Here is the haiku she shared with me today:

One lone merganser
floating on the frigid pond.
Bet his bottom's cold!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

January 7: Alpenglow

Stuck in an office most of my day, I sometimes get frustrated about not being able to get outside and chase a bird or two. The irony is that the goal of my work is the conservation of the special wild places that I would like to be out enjoying. I can't really complain, as I certainly do get my chances to spend time on Coastal Mountains Land Trust's preserves, as well as the nearby trails in Camden Hills State Park and beyond. This time of year, however, I'm feeling particularly desk-bound. And thus very thankful that our office is at least situated with a view of the Megunticook River (and the dramatic "falls" at the Seabright Dam) and Mount Battie.

This afternoon on a trek from my desk to the printer, I happened to look out the east-facing window toward the river and the mountain. I was kind of hoping to see that red-tailed hawk again. No hawk, but I was stopped in my tracks. The snowy summit of Mount Battie shone rosy purple with the sun's last rays, transformed by true alpenglow into something almost magical. Enjoying the rich light of the day's last golden moments, I felt instantly grateful to live and work in the company of a mountain (albeit a rather small one).

Over New Year's weekend, my husband and I watched for the thousandth time the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy. The warm glow of the mountaintop made me think of places where elves lived in Middle Earth. How many people have the opportunity to travel from typing a report at their desk to admiring a Middle Earth vista in just a few steps?

A place for magic:
golden glow of sun's last rays
lights up mountain snow.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

January 6: Wishing to See an Owl

Driving home from an evening meeting tonight, it occurred to me that the old farm fields along Simonton Road would be an ideal place to see an owl. I see turkeys there sometimes. And those fields are probably full of rodents tunneling around under the snow and grass. Some big old oaks stand on the open hills like sentinels, perfect strategic perches for a bird of prey. So why not an owl? 

I wished and wished for an owl to swoop across the road within range of my headlights. Of course, the cool thing about wild animals is that they don't do what you want. They live on their own schedule. Unless of course you're Aquaman, able to summon the creatures of the sea through mental telepathy. (Which I tried to do once as a kid. I spent a whole day on my grandparents' beach staring at the waves trying to summon a dolphin, concluded that I definitely do not have super powers.)

Not seeing an owl despite thinking really hard about seeing one made me realize that really it's all a matter of perception. Which got me thinking about the last stanza of Wallace Stevens' amazing and mind-twisting poem "The Snow Man" (1921):

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
and, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

So here's a poem of what might have been:

To see what you seek--
nexus of want and desire
manifests as owl. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

January 5: Red-tailed Hawk

I woke up cranky this morning for no real reason. Just one of those mornings when I couldn't fully wake up. An early meeting didn't lift my spirits much, though my co-workers were as entertaining as ever. And later, I was sitting in my director's office discussing budget items for our next fiscal year--also not helping my mood--when suddenly a hawk flew past. A red-tail, dark chest and wing markings and red tail all fully visible, splashes of color in the grey and white landscape. The big bird flapped down the river to land in a bare oak across the water from the office. With binoculars we each enjoyed brief but perfect views of this beautiful raptor as it paused on its journey. And when it lifted off to soar back upriver, my mood rose with it.

Hawk visitation:
red-tail cruising the river.
My spirits take wing.

Added bonus: red-tailed hawk became species #10 on my list of first birds seen in 2010.

Monday, January 4, 2010

January 4: Snowy Peaks

It's amazing how lofty and remote the familiar Camden Hills can become with the addition of a few inches of snow. Although Mount Megunticook is the third highest peak on the Atlantic seaboard, that's not saying much. It's just over 1,300 feet in elevation, behind Cadillac and another Acadia mountain, and just ahead of Ragged and Bald, also in the Camden Hills. Most of the Atlantic coast is just that: coast. As in, sea level. Camden isn't called "where the mountains meet the sea" for nothing--most of the coast doesn't have such a lucky and scenic conjunction of geography.

But after the past weekend's storm, the snow-covered Megunticook ridgeline looks positively alpine. Perhaps it's because the frosting of snow accentuates the craggy appearance of the mountain's open, rocky ledges and spiky summit evergreens. Or perhaps it's that the old landslide scar from several decades ago is highlighted by the whiteness, looking now like a fresh avalanche chute. Whatever the reason, when the sun hit the ridge this afternoon, I caught my breath. There was a mountain! Remote, inaccessible, lofty... and beautiful.

Snow-covered ridgeline--
is that really where we walked
in last summer's heat?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

January 3: Sunday Afternoon Moment

It's a wonderful thing when you can take a look around you and say, "In this moment right now, I'm happy."

Here's my moment: I'm watching the Patriots game while I eat my lunch of pretzel crisps, Brie, and really good fig spread with almonds and apricots.

What makes this moment such a good one? Well, set-up is part of the equation. Paul and I shoveled a lot of snow this morning. (And I added bird species #6-9 to my First Birds of the Year list.) Then we ran some errands. Now, the groceries are put away, a pretty, new orchid sits in my window, there's nothing left on my "to do" list, and I'm free to watch the game--alone, which means I can also blast the heat and yell at the screen. It's the last game of the regular season, but they've already clinched the AFC East title, so nothing rests on a victory here. My moment is that perfect point in time between a satisfactory past--lots of sleep and the completion of all I'd planned for this three-day weekend (taking down Christmas, massive cleaning)--and a positive future--the unusual luxury of several hours ahead of me for which I have nothing planned.

Also, though a wet snow still spits out the window, the big storm is mostly over. So no more anxiety about possibly losing power in a blizzard. And hopefully no worries about having to wake up early tomorrow to shovel out my car so I can get to work on time.

A high moment for me often involves food, as well--either a special or favorite food, or a meal joyously shared with family or friends. My unusual Brie and pretzel combo is a weekend lunch favorite. And sports is another important factor. I unapologetically love watching sports, be it Patriots football, Red Sox baseball, the Kentucky Derby, a Federer-Nadal finals match in the French Open, or the Winter Olympics. So for an indoors moment, this one contains all the elements for happiness. (Outdoors moments almost always involve birding...) I'm content as my cat now snoring away in her laundry room cubby. And grateful for it.

Brie and pretzel lunch,
Sunday afternoon football--
all's good in my world.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

January 2: Goldfinches in the Snow

Not quite as exciting as gorillas in the mist, but amid today's flurry of fast-falling flakes, bird species #5 of 2010 appeared at my kitchen window feeders: American goldfinch! The bird to the right daintily plucked thistle seeds from the thistle bag and neatly dropped the tiny husks onto the snow behind it for at least ten minutes as I stood there and watched. Others hunkered down in the relative shelter of the black sunflower feeder, eating the larger seeds in a sloppier manner, the seed shells comically dangling off their bills.

I stalked them from inside this morning partly to see if I could actually get a decent photo through the window and partly for some snow day entertainment. I should get out and do something stimulating like snowshoe through the neighborhood, but instead I've been luxuriating in the warmth and shelter of my home. Still in my pajamas, I've baked a batch of popovers, completed a NYT crossword puzzle, and now I've recorded the first birds at my feeder in the new year. That the window feeder has accumulated a thin layer of snow didn't stop three goldfinches from trying to cram in there all at once at one point. And occasionally, to my delight, the birds' sweet, querulous calls would rise above the dull roar of the dishwasher and stove fan.

Goldfinches in summer plumage are bright yellow with black wings and pink bills. The males, who are more brilliantly colored overall, sport jaunty black forehead caps, as well. This time of year the birds are hardly recognizable as the same species. But I find their subtle coloring to be more beautiful in its way: the soft buffy brown of the head and back contrasts gently with the grey nape and breast and patches of bright yellow around the throat. One of today's visitors has a distinctive yellow patch on its shoulder, a sort of epaulette carried over from sunnier days. In this photo, the snow-covered mound of my husband's car and a frosted fence provide the perfect backdrop against which to study the finches' winter plumage:

The bird on the left is duller than the one on the right, with paler yellow highlights, though its wings are blacker. Each bird is slightly different, a thing of wonder in itself that could be studied for hours. Especially now, when I can't help but marvel that such tiny bits of life are carrying on amid the wind and snow of this storm.

Blizzard on its way,
but now, finch at the feeder.
Eat up, tiny bird!

Friday, January 1, 2010

January 1, 2010: First Birds

On the first day of the near year, I like to make a personal game out of listing the first 10 bird species I see. So far, here's my list: 1. Crow.

Granted, I slept in, and a wet heavy snow has been falling since yesterday. But after asking my friends on Facebook what they've seen today, the range of responses has made me a bit envious. A friend in the deep South saw a black vulture. My father in Delaware saw snow geese while out on a walk. A friend in Hope saw a deer under her apple tree. My neighbor saw her chickens (hey, a bird's a bird!) Others have seen woodpeckers, chickadees, doves, and titmice at their feeders. Where are my chickadees? Where are the ducks? I think I'm going to have to actually venture outside my cozy house  to really see what's out there.

As if to confirm this, a crow just flew into the yard, cawing energetically. It landed on a branch right outside my window in a poof of snow, cawed in my direction a few times as if to say, Get out here now!, and flew back across the yard to join its friends who are all now making a racket somewhere down river.

First bird of the year:
black crow flies past snowy trees,
yin-yang made alive.

Update: I went out to run some errands and stopped off to scan Camden Harbor. Now it's near dark, and my list has not expanded by much. Hopefully this isn't prescient of my birding luck for the year ahead, though presumably I will be making a much greater effort on future occasions.

2. Mallard
3. Black duck
4. Herring gull

No other identifiable birds--not even a chickadee, which was last year's first bird. Except a lot more crows, as if they want to be sure I know they are the Bird of the Day. Or maybe Bird of the Year!