Wednesday, March 31, 2010

March 31: Clouds Passing

Although the night sky is hidden by clouds now, earlier today we breathed a big sigh of relief when the rain finally stopped. The clouds began to pass eastward over the mountains, leaving behind sodden soils and a swollen river. Someone said we'd gotten 11 inches of rain this March, when we normally get about three. For a while sunlight shone into my office, illuminating the room in what seemed like a new and wonderful way. I wanted to stretch out in my rug like a cat. We exclaimed over patches of blue sky.

This respite from the elements lasted till dark, so I was able to run outside after work. Everywhere the earth seemed to be celebrating the passing of the rain. Birds warbled from budding trees: song sparrows, blackbirds, house finches, and robins--the first singing robins I've heard this spring. People were out running, walking, biking in that brief window before darkness. The river jubilantly spilled over its banks all along Route 105 and into town, creating tree-filled ponds, foreshortened lawns, wild rows of foaming waves, and new side streams. The air was redolent with that fresh lake water smell I associate with fishing. As I ran past the view of Mount Megunticook along 105, the tail end of the clouds was sweeping up its western flank like a vaporous scarf. Goodbye, rain!

Draped by cloud mantle,
mountain becomes resting girl
lulled by robin's song.

Like the mountain, I too can now rest, satisfied with my day's activities, uplifted by the birdsong of spring.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 30: The Great Unconformity

A birder friend, Bryan Pfeiffer, recently hiked for several days by himself in the Grand Canyon. (You can see a beautiful one-minute slide show of his adventure at his blog, The Daily Wing.) Although I have visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, I wasn't fortunate enough to hike more than 1/2 mile down into the canyon, not far enough on the trail we followed to reach The Great Unconformity. A photo in Bryan's slideshow brought back my long-held fascination with this geological landmark that I first learned about in college geology classes and still hope to see someday in person.

Some background: An unconformity is the division between a younger rock layer and a much older one--a gap in time representing loss, because what it means is that there is no geologic record of the period between the two layers. For whatever reason no sediment was deposited during this time, or what was deposited was somehow washed or blown away. The cool thing is that when you put your hand on an unconformity, you're spanning millions of years. The Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon represents a missing gap in Earth's history of 250 million to 1.2 billion years--an unfathomable chunk of this planet's history. It's mind-blowing, really. Above the Great Unconformity is sandstone with fossils of shells; below is Vishnu Schist, which formed in a time when the only creatures around to leave a fossil record were bacteria. 

What I didn't remember from those geology classes so long ago (though just a blink of an eye in geologic time) is that the Great Unconformity exists around the world. The Grand Canyon just offers some of the best exposures of it. 

Rock above, below;
one hand spans a billion years.
We are all mere dust.


Monday, March 29, 2010

March 29: Water Water Everywhere

Yesterday's forecast was for 100% chance of rain today, and for once it was accurate. It poured all day; it's still pouring. And amid the rain drops it drizzles and drips. The spillway over the dam is churning up some serious whitewater. Roadside ditches along Route 105 were running high and full by late afternoon. Crossing the Megunticook River on Rawson Avenue, I could see that the water was almost level with the lawns. Filled to the brim. Water's cascading off Mount Battie, at least what you could see of it earlier under its moist cap of fog and cloud. Now in the dark there's a roar outside that's a combination of wind, rain on the roof, and river's rush. Granted that river is only about 20 feet wide, but it can be loud when the water's high. Makes me thankful that we're above the flood plain.

This morning in Camden Harbor the combination of rainstorm and full moon had tugged the high tide almost level with the granite blocks of Harbor Park. Where the river crashed over the waterfall into the harbor, high spumes of white water raged and sprayed. (Similar water dramas were playing out at the two dams of the Knox Mill--wild enough to make you stop the car and marvel at the sheer force of all that water.) The harbor was about as full as it could be without spilling over into the parking lot or park, without wetting anyone's feet through the planks of the harborside walkway. It was as if the sea were barely restraining itself from breaking loose and rising into town.

Brimming bowl of sea
brought to boil by the full moon.
Springtime restlessness.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

March 28: Coyote Window

A woman I know who lives on Ducktrap Mountain in Lincolnville takes trip-wire photographs at night of the animals hanging out in her woods. She recently shared a photograph of a coyote that I liked and saved to my computer desktop.

Photo by Corelyn Senn

So on my desktop now is a thumbnail image of this photo (much smaller than above), a study in grey and black: tiny coyote amid the vertical lines of tree trunks with a backdrop of darkness--a miniature window into a strange nighttime forest wherein lurks a prowling coyote. And other beasts--bobcats, foxes, ten-point buck standing before you like something out of a dream. I might keep the image on my desktop if just for this slightly spooky little glimpse into a world that gave birth to Little Red Riding-hood and tales of Coyote the trickster. Though who knows what will happen with this wily creature pinned to my screen like an icon, what affect it might have on my work as I type away with those untamed eyes upon me. I've always been a little afraid of the dark, and knowing what's out there isn't always a comfort.  But sometimes what unsettles us is what's most inspiring.

Prowling coyote--
this night creature on my screen
from dream, fairy tale.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

March 27: Cold Run

Right now the thermometer says it's in the low 20s, but with wind chill, I'm sure it's really about ten degrees colder. So despite the day's sunny aspect, it's understandable why I debated for a while about whether to run outside or hit the Y this morning. Laziness won out over bodily comfort--I didn't feel like trekking across town to the Y to run in circles--so I bundled up and went outside. And then promptly turned around and came back inside for yet another layer. The sight of a budding daffodil in the yard did encourage me, however, that I had made the right decision opting "out." If that tender young flower could handle the cold, so could I.

As I began my slow plod up the street, I was encouraged to hear song sparrows singing. Focusing on their songs--and not the cold air searing my lungs or the wind buffeting my exposed ears--helped. As I moved through the crisp, beautiful, blue-sky morning, song sparrows were singing on both sides of the road. I felt like I was running along a song sparrow parade route. Small flocks of them scattered from the side of the road like wind-tossed leaves. Sparrows at every step, a song from every corner, each one a slight variation on the same theme.

A cold morning run
serenaded by sparrows--
each step a new song.

On one lawn, a small flock of robins poked around and clucked. This distracted me enough to make it up the biggest hill on my intended route. As I reached the relatively sheltered, tree-lined corridor of Cobb Road, it got even better. Birds were singing everywhere: song sparrows, a house finch, several downy woodpeckers, strident blue jays, goldfinches, more song sparrows, more robins, titmice, chickadees, trilling juncos, and the beautiful, liquid spring song of a lone brown creeper. Despite the shell of ice on the little patch of marsh, a single red-winged blackbird sang, undaunted. Two crows in a big oak silently watched me pass. As I headed home down Washington Street, flocks of sparrows seemed to linger in every bush, and I wished, not for the first time, that there were a way to run with binoculars. In one sunny spot, a male downy woodpecker's red head spot caught the light and shone like a little beacon. Back on my own street, golden-crowned kinglet songs floated overhead. And before I knew it, I was slogging down the sidewalk to my oh-so-warm house, grateful to the birds for having escorted me all the way through my chilly run.

Friday, March 26, 2010

March 26: Waking to Snow

Last night I slept fitfully. Between the raging elements--wind and a pounding rain--and strange dreams culminating in a headache, I awoke rather bleary-eyed. But when I pulled up the bedroom blind, I was surprised to see both sunlight and snow. The sun lit the foam on the brimming river and the lacy frosting of snow on the back lawn. Quite pretty, really. Even though this was just a dusting, it's been so long since it snowed that I felt an excitement like when you awaken to the first snow in late fall.

Later, I checked on my irises, tulips, and chives that had begun to send up tender green spears into the spring air. Everything looks alive and hardy. Even the rhododendron, despite clenching its leaves tightly in the cold, still boasts healthy-looking buds. As I watch out the back window now, the sunlight has reached portions of the yard and melted the strands of snow which had so neatly coated the grass combed with the rake last weekend. The remaining furrows and ridges of snow ripple in the light, echoing the white water on the river. March isn't over, so I doubt this will be the last snow of the season. But its ephemeral beauty reminds us that winter has definitely loosened its grip, is letting go...

Patterns of white foam
lace the river, snowy lawn--
early spring motif.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

March 25: Window

I left work late tonight feeling brain-weary. Driving through the deep blue twilight, heading not home but into town to complete one final errand, my eyes were caught by the comforting sight of a yellow-lit window glowing in a little house tucked against the dark bulk of Mount Battie. That illuminated square promised warmth and rest. For a moment, I wished that were my home. For some reason, no other window on that street offered quite the same welcoming glow. My emotions had been manipulated by a sort of living Thomas Kincaide scene. Sometimes it's OK to give in to that kind of thing.

Twilit, chilly night.
How comforting the window's
glowing yellow square.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 24: Sparrow in the Snow

This afternoon as the rain briefly turned to snow outside my office, the local song sparrow took shelter in my little window bird feeder. He (I think it's the male that's been singing at the edge of the office lawn) occasionally ate some sunflower seed, but mostly just sat there looking a bit dazed. Probably wondering why he'd made such an effort to get here this early, with snow still falling. Even as I moved around my office, he stayed there on the edge of the feeder, watching with his bright little eyes as snowflakes lazily drifted past. Eventually someone came into my office, causing the sparrow to fly down into a bush, but he returned later for another long stint. While I worked at my computer, it was comforting in a way to look up and see the bird there, bill stuffed with seed. But I also couldn't help but worry about him, hoping he'll find enough food and good shelter to get him through the cold snap we're supposed to get this weekend. Granted, this chilly wet weather is more typical of late March in Maine. And some song sparrows even winter over. They're tough little birds. But until the warm weather is here to stay, I know I'll feel a small sense of relief each day that I continue to see him.

Early spring sparrow,
what goes through your little brain
as rain turns to snow?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 23: Stop Sign

At the end of Mill Street where it intersects with Mount Battie Street, someone has added words onto the stop sign so it looks like this:

If it weren't pouring rain and dark right now, I'd go take a picture of this sign to show you. I have a penchant for signs and what they can convey about a place. My favorite artsy project last year was to put together a photo book documenting Monhegan Island through its signs. I particularly enjoy it when people are creative with existing signs, as with my neighborhood's stop sign. And in fact, when I am stopped there, I do take an extra moment before continuing on my way. I'm often paused in front of this sign as I'm hurrying back to the office, so its message conveys a lesson that can be eerily appropriate for my current mood. 

Another stop sign in town that has been creatively embellished stands over at the Simonton's Corner intersection. It reads:

Two buildings away from this sign is an old community hall where contra dances are often held. When I'm stopped at this sign, it never fails to make me smile as I imagine someone sneaking over to it after a wild night of dancing and commemorating the evening in this wonderful way. 

Stop sign gives me pause.
Don't just sit there, it says. Think.
Be in the moment.


Monday, March 22, 2010

March 22: Woodpecker

As I logged on to write my post for this afternoon, knowing I wanted to write about the pileated woodpecker I saw this morning, I had to laugh--two other bird blogs that I follow had also posted something about pileated woodpeckers: the Stokes Birding Blog (though mostly about the ivory-billed) and   the Mass. Breeding Bird Atlas blog. For the record, I did not, however, laugh like Woody Woodpecker (who is, by all appearances, a pileated woodpecker), although my mother has been known to do a mean imitation of the cartoon character.

I was greeted by that crazy laughter (from the real bird, not my mother or Woody) this morning as I walked into the office. Pileated woodpeckers are particularly vocal this time of year as they noisily establish their territorial dominance and their need for a good woman by both calling and loudly drumming on whatever will make the most noise. Spring is in their veins. They have large territories, and their drumming can resonate over a mile; I'm sure the pair that hangs out here at the office is the same one I see in my own yard at the other end of the street.

After hearing his wild cackling off and on for the past few weeks, I finally got to see the male this morning thanks to an alert co-worker whose window faces the woods. He called us in and we all watched the big ol' woodpecker flap into the woods. Those flashy white wing patches and bright red crest and facial splash make him stand out among the bare trunks. He is our largest woodpecker, after all. A bird like that doesn't exactly keep a low profile.

Interesting side notes: The pileated's pointy "cap" is actually the source of its odd name: it means "having a crest." And for those who care about such things, you can pronounce it PILL-e-ated or PILE-e-ated.

A few summers ago, this female was so intent on eating grubs from this rotten stump outside the Land Trust office that she paid no attention to my presence.

Red-crowned and laughing--
raucous king of the forest,
I think she hears you!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

March 21: Air Space

My friend Brian and I stopped by Weskeag Marsh this afternoon to see what birds might have arrived. When we first got there, a big flock of crows seemed to be chasing something. They weren't making too much of a ruckus, so they must have successfully driven off whatever they'd ganged up against. Among the mallards, black ducks, and many little green-winged teals, we picked out a great blue heron. Several vociferous killdeer made their presence known throughout the marsh. Another great blue heron flew in. A song sparrow chipped from the bushes. The sun brightened, making it difficult to look westward out over the pannes.

Then Brian spotted an adult bald eagle soaring in over the trees. We hoped it would flush the ducks, so we could get a good count on the waterfowl lurking unseen at the back of the marsh. But instead of hunting, the eagle simply perched on a pine bough. I thought the crows, who were still loitering like a bunch of delinquents, might decide to mob the bird, but apparently they couldn't be bothered. So we kind of forgot about the eagle until a few minutes later we noticed two red-tailed hawks aggressively chasing it away. They followed the eagle as it soared higher and higher above the trees, diving on the larger bird quite closely at times. Fellow birder Don Reimer, who visits the marsh almost daily, wondered aloud if this was the same pair of red-tails that had nested near the marsh last year. By the way they were acting, I'd say so. They flanked that eagle like two fighter jets, escorting it out of their air space.

Driving away about ten minutes later, we saw one of the hawks perched above a nearby field. When I pulled over so Brian could try to photograph it, it took flight over the pannes, its red tail shining in the afternoon sun.

Red tails a warning,
two hawks escort an eagle
out of their air space.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

March 20: Spring Equinox

Spring is officially here at last! I celebrated the Vernal Equinox by spending the whole of this amazingly warm day outside raking my lawn. In shorts and a t-shirt at that. Now I think I'm going to spend what's left of my day on the couch popping ibuprofen. Raking is a full body activity, and after five straight hours of it, my whole body's in pain. But it's a good pain, the soreness of muscles from doing something vigorous and strenuous outdoors. And such satisfying work--I can see my actual lawn again after months of looking out on a carpet of dead leaves and dirty snow. The dried grass, while not much more attractive, at least looks well-combed now. Tulips and daffodils I had forgotten were out there have been revealed, their green shoots now exposed to sun. The sword tips of iris leaves emerge, and the baby chives would probably already taste good in a salad. My quince, lilac, and rhododendron bushes all appear to have survived the winter well; leaf buds are beginning to swell along their branches. Ah, the joy of fresh greenery.

While I worked, I felt like I had emerged from hibernation and was once again part of my neighborhood. My next-door neighbors kindly lent me their wheelbarrow for the day while they rototilled their garden. The kids across the street rode their bikes up and down the sidewalk, talked about swimming in the river (ice-out on Megunticook Lake was officially declared yesterday), and then spent a few hours loudly playing in their back yard. So reassuring to see children spending their days outside doing things. I periodically paused to chat with neighbors walking or driving by. A day like this puts everyone in good spirits, as we all luxuriate in the warm spring air.

The song sparrow that arrived back yesterday flitted about the backyard. Blue jays jeered. Titmice and cardinals sang distant love songs. A nuthatch called briefly. Crows cawed in response to a barking dog. All was as it should be on the first day of spring. The annual process of renewal has truly begun, and no matter what weather we get in the next month or so--it could still snow--there's no stopping it now.

Vernal equinox--
daylight has caught up with night,
green world stirs to life.

Friday, March 19, 2010

May 19: Young Moon

The sky was wide and clear over open fields tonight as we left our friends' house in Lincolnville. Directly overhead, red Mars shone. Leo the Lion crouched below Mars, ready to pounce. The Big Dipper has tipped sideways now, about to spill its ethereal contents northward. To the east, bright Sirius has risen above Hatchet Mountain, Orion even higher. And to the northeast, above the house but below the smudge of the Pleaides, the waxing crescent Moon. A thin sliver of a moon, barely born. And within the embrace of the horns of the Moon, the shadowy visage of the rest of the Moon was visible, the old Moon in the new Moon's arms.

Although I've seen this phenomenon often, I've never really thought about what caused it. It turns out we can see the entire Moon because sunlight reflecting off the Earth--earthshine--casts enough light to make it so. But the scientific explanation seems much less romantic than the image of the old and new Moons embracing to become one.

We drove down the long driveway with the window open, hoping to hear a woodcock or an owl. We didn't hear a thing, but the stars--the billions and billions of stars--were everywhere.

Waxing crescent Moon
holds the old Moon in her arms.
We all seek wholeness.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

March 18: Field o' Robins

Driving to Rockland this morning I passed a field full of robins. This was the very field on Meadow Rd. above which I spotted my first-of-year vulture not so long ago, so maybe I should just camp out there in my quest for signs of spring. This morning it was robins, the first I've seen in the past month or so that I feel certain are "inbound" birds, not lingering, wintering birds from Canada. As they migrate north, these spring robins can be seen in great numbers spread out across farm fields, probing the recently thawed soil for worms and other goodies. Each one seems to have its own patch, just a few feet from another robin. The blacker-looking birds with brighter red breasts are the males; the females look slightly faded alongside. Today's group seemed to be a mixed-gender flock. It won't be long now before I hear the robin's rollicking "cheery-up, cheery-o" song in my yard right about this time of day, as the sun sets behind the treeline. In my neighborhood, they're usually the first bird I hear when I awake and the last I hear before dark.

Muddy, untilled field--
to the migrating robins,
a moist chocolate cake.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

March 17: Bird Poker

The one bonus of daylight savings time: last night there was enough light after I left work that I could run outside instead of having to go to the gym. It truly felt like spring, and my steps were lighter for it. House finches and cardinals sang as I ran down my street, doves flushed from the roadside, and a pair of geese glided together up the river. There's a section of Route 105 where fields open to the river and a wide vista of the Tablelands and Mount Megunticook. I was just about there when I happened to look up, and I almost stopped in my tracks. Above me swirled a kettle of many vultures. I tried to count them while not straying into the ditch or the path of an oncoming car. Twenty-one! Previously I had only seen four at once. Now they seemed to be back in force.

A little further on, I looked up again. The birds were more spread out this time, lower, just above the treeline, perhaps heading in to roost on Bald Mountain. It was, after all, almost 6:00 p.m. They were easier to count, and I again tallied twenty-one big black birds soaring westward. Twenty-one vultures. Blackjack! All black cards, too. Amusing myself with this poker metaphor, I ran on. I often run with a song in my head to help keep my pace up. What came to mind then was Sting's "Shape of My Heart": "I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier. I know that the clubs are weapons of war. I know that diamonds mean money for this art, but that's not the shape of my heart..." A lovely song. A good song for soaring raptors.

Farther along 105 as it comes close to the river, I got my jackpot. I just happened to look up and see a very large bird fly over my head. At first I thought it was one of those vultures, it was so big. But when I could see its plumage patterns, I realized it was a hawk. A big hawk. But not a red-tail. Because it flapped those big wings a few times, then glided, then flapped a few more times with slow strength, then glided across the river and into the pines. Distinctive flight pattern of an accipiter. According to Hawks in Flight by Peter Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton, "Rule of thumb: any bird that is first identified as a buteo and turns out to be an accipiter may safely be called a Goshawk." (Italics theirs.) But before I even got home and read that sentence, I already knew I had seen a goshawk. Some things you just know. I also knew that I'd been dealt a very lucky hand that day.

Twenty-one vultures:
winning handful of black cards.
My jackpot: goshawk!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

March 16: Coltsfoot

Each day brings a new hint of spring. Today at work as we were engaged in our annual stint of yard work, we came across a couple of coltsfeet blooming under the pine tree out front. Coltsfoot is usually one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, and it seems to like the lawn of the Land Trust office--especially a moist swath down by the river that at its peak almost glows with a conglomeration of coltsfoot constellations. It was a refreshing reward for our labors to come across the bright yellow faces of this little flower, which is often mistaken for a dandelion. It gets its name from its hoofprint-shaped leaves, which haven't even sprouted yet. No green here, just the flower heads atop their scruffy stalks poking up out of last year's dead grass and weeds. Coltsfoot's genus name Tussilago means "cough supressant," and herbal pharmacies sell extracts of coltsfoot to help cure lung problems. But right now, the thumbnail-sized blossoms amid the pine needles--in addition to the bright sun we've enjoyed all day--are working for me as mood enhancers.

This year's flowers might be a little earlier than usual. I took this photo at my office on 14 April 2005.

Small suns amid weeds--
early flowers make us smile.
Reward for raking.

Monday, March 15, 2010

March 15: Pussy Willows

Out a window at the back of the office, along a sunny wooded edge: pussy willows! One big bush was busting out all over with fluffy white catkins neatly aligned along the naked branches. Every since I learned the "Pussy Willow Song" as a kid, I've always been excited to see the first pussy willows of spring: "I know a little pussy. Her coat is silver gray. She lives down in the meadow, not very far away..."

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Besides their cuteness factor, pussy willows are also interesting from cultural and biological perspectives:

  • According to Wikipedia, some Christians in northern climates who don't have access to palm leaves apparently carry boughs of pussy willows instead. Makes practical as well as symbolic sense to me.
  • The pussy willow flower, which the catkin eventually blooms into, is an important early source of pollen for native bees. And our native bees need all they help they can get.
  • Studies have shown that pussy willow flower nectar is very high in sugar content. Good to know if you're lost in the spring woods--just suck on a bunch of pussy willows.
  • Many species of willow contain salicin in their bark, which is the basis for salicylic acid, a natural analgesic commonly known to us as aspirin. Also probably good to know if you're lost in the woods.
All very interesting, but really, what I love is that pussy willows embody the essence of renewal in early spring, the bare branches suddenly bursting to life with catkins while the leaves are still tight buds. I can never resisting cutting a branch or two to bring inside. If left in a vase without water, they'll last a long time. And while I'm at it, I usually cut a few boughs of forsythia, as well, to force their sunny blossoms (water required) a few weeks ahead of schedule. In Maine we get impatient for spring, so we make it happen.

Pussy willow buds
in coats of silver gray--spring,
childhood songs return.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

March 14: Moss

On this dreary day of cold rain, I've been wistfully looking out my back window. A pair of crows caws in duet with my neighbor's dog's barking. The river seems to be at a normal water level again after a few days of looking at lines of exposed rocks; the Town must have adjusted the dam upstream. The bare trees show no hint of ever bearing leaves. Rain softly, steadily drums its fingers on the roof. I'm reminded of the last line of a poem by e.e. cummings: "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." (Though he's out of vogue now, e.e. cummings' poetry includes some of the most romantic love poems.)

Anxious to find something to lift my spirits, I've been fixating on my shed roof. My eyes are drawn to the bright chartreuse color of the moss on the roof's north-facing side. It's a vibrant, almost electric green. Years ago on a hot summer night on a porch surrounded by lawn and lush fields, a group of friends and I shared a bottle of Chartreuse. Until that evening, I didn't know what Chartreuse was, and hadn't realized that the color name came from the actual color of this liqueur made by French monks out of a veritable garden of herbal extracts. (Their original monastery was in the Chartreuse mountains.) We decided that because it was made by monks, it must be a spiritual sort of drink that would fill us with the green energy of all the plants that made it. It tasted like fresh grass translated into alcohol, distilling into a drink the verdant beauty of the fields that surrounded us. We were imbibing the very place itself, and it felt like magic.

Now this freakish moss, the only green I can see out my window on this mid-March day, has brought me back to that moment. I can almost taste it.

Only green in sight:
chartreuse moss on my shed roof.
The world will revive.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 13: Open Window

I readily admit I'm a wimp about the cold. So that might explain how momentous it was for me this afternoon, despite the lingering chill in the air, to open the window over my desk. My initial purpose was to see if I could figure out what was going on with the cawing, swirling gang of about eight crows out back. (They must have been playing some kind of indecipherable crow game, because no other bird or beast seemed to be involved.) Once I got the window open, however, and felt real live air pouring in, I realized that it had probably been months since I last opened a window. I could hear the crows, of course, as well as the neighbor's barking dog, the quiet white noise of the river, sociable mallards cruising up and down the banks in interchanging pairs, a scolding squirrel, and the rustle of crisp, wind-tossed leaves blanketing our yard. Now, even though I'm freezing, I'm hesitant to close the window and cut myself off again from what's going on out there. Although, every time a gust of winds stirs up all those dead leaves, it's reminding me that soon I'll have to undertake my annual chore of raking the yard to expose my flower beds and lawn to what will hopefully be the kinder, gentler air of spring.

An open window:
rustle of dead leaves, crisp breeze.
Not quite warm enough.

Friday, March 12, 2010

March 12: Birches

While I have a birch tree or two in my backyard, this entry was not inspired by any birch I've seen today. Today is my friend Shannon's birthday. (Happy birthday, Shan!) We've known each other since high school, and in thinking about her today, I was reminded of some of the antics we shared more than 25 years ago. We would cruise around listening to the Grateful Dead (American Beauty) or Bob Dylan (Freewheelin' Dylan) really loud. When a song came on that we particularly liked, say, "Box of Rain," she'd enthusiastically honk the horn a few times. And when the music wasn't blasting, we'd share those deep conversations you only have as a teenager, about music and art and places we wanted to visit in the world. Shannon was daring and creative in ways that I was not; she inspired me with her rebellious independence.

We were (and are) admirers of the artist Neil Welliver, a nationally known painter who lived in Lincolnville. Shannon's parents owned a beautiful print of his that I coveted depicting the night sky over Pitcher Pond. As the next best thing, I owned a big poster of his painting Birches, which I loved because it so perfectly captured the light and beauty of the local woods. That image followed me to college and, until a few years ago, hung on my office wall. Sometimes when Shannon and I were driving around, we would come across a scene of wintry birches like that on my poster, and she would honk the horn. For my "senior gift" before high school graduation, I was given a laminated copy of the Robert Frost poem "Birches." I'm sure Shannon was behind that. We reconnected as friends years after high school, and she still possesses that same spontaneous, contagious sense of unselfconscious joy. And she still inspires me.

Friends then and friends now.
Birches make me think of you,
recall youth's freedoms.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

March 11: Church Bells

When I got out of my car in my driveway tonight, I heard bells ringing in the twilight. I have no idea where the musical chiming was coming from--perhaps the church up on Cobb Road, though it sounded closer. The sky overhead was the deep clear blue of a cathedral ceiling. It was a lovely, profound, mysterious moment--offering a perfect mental transition from work to the relaxations of home.

Church bells at twilight.
Soon the spring evenings will ring
with calls of wild geese.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 10: End of Day

These late afternoons when the light lingers temper the end of my work day. Instead of anxiously rushing to finish up this task or that report, I find myself standing at the window looking out at the river reflecting these last bits of light. This is the time of day when those last golden rays of sunlight slant through the bare trees, and birds (and people) head home for the night. The vultures tilt and glide their way to their mountain roosts, ducks fly past in quick, small flocks, and chickadees make one last visit to the feeder (in fact, here's one now, as I type). Somehow leaving work with some remaining daylight doesn't seem so hard on one's state of mind as leaving in the pitch dark. There's still some time left to gather oneself, to do something, even if it's just looking out the window as dark settles, waiting for streetlights to come on and stars to brighten over the mountain.

Mallards fly upstream,
set down on reflected trees--
remains of the day.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

March 9: First Vulture

That first day of work after a vacation always sinks one back into the mundane fairly quickly. After spending a few hours in my office, I drove to a meeting in Rockland. In addition to thinking ahead to my meeting, my head was crammed full of work-related thoughts, the slightly rusty wheels grinding away, trying to get back into the proper mindset to get my job done. I crossed Route 90 onto Meadow Road, and suddenly noticed a lone turkey vulture soaring above the fields. I had just seen kettles of hundreds of vultures in Florida, so it didn't register at first what I was really seeing: my first vulture of the season! I waved to it out the car window, welcoming it back and wishing it luck in finding good thermals to ride and some dead things to eat.

Later this afternoon, four vultures cruised over the office. They're back! And we're officially on track for spring. From now until sometime in November I will probably see vultures circling over the river below the Megunticook ridgeline almost every afternoon. All is right in this part of the world. Up next: blackbirds, woodcock, robins...

Ah! Soaring vulture
buoyed by the earth's warm breath--
first of the season.

Monday, March 8, 2010

March 8: Hint of Spring

As the sky shifted from blank to blue this morning, I decided to go for my first run in a couple of weeks. I bundled up in tights, long-sleeved tee, hooded sweatshirt, and hat, and headed out. Little did I realize that what looked like a chilly, bleak, early March day was really a warm, sunny almost-Spring day. I began to overheat and ended up running with my sweatshirt tied around my waist.

It occurred to me that the temperature might be similar to what it had been when we were in Florida, where it was unusually chilly. In actuality it was probably a little cooler here, but because we still expect it to be wintery, it felt warmer. Also, here I wasn't surrounded by gently waving palm fronds and other lush greenery, or egrets, painted buntings, roseate spoonbills, and ibises. A cardinal sang briefly amid still-bare branches of a maple, and I thrilled to hear a chattering chorus of goldfinches in a tree near my parents' house. A pair of geese floated in the open river, as well as a lone, lingering bufflehead. It won't be too long before I hear the red-winged blackbird's "conk-a-ree" call from the river's edge or see vultures soaring over Route 105. Tempering my optimism for the shifting season, however, was the view before me of the summit of Bald Mountain still very much covered with snow.

Geese are returning.
I run in just a t-shirt
past snowy mountains.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

March 7: Sea Salt

A friend gave us today a small bottle of sea salt from the waters off Spruce Head. Throughout the winter he boils off seawater on his wood stove and collects the salt residue. Now we can season our food with genuine local salt. In this new era of eating local foods, I hadn't thought before about how even salt can be found so close to home. Living on the coast, we are surrounded by sea salt, but I never think about harvesting my own as I would wild berries or mussels.

This home-grown process of "making" salt reminded me of a poignant section of The Tale of Genji in which Prince Genji goes into exile for a while in a remote coastal village on Suma Bay, far from his many lovers and the excitement of the capital. While there, he exchanges letters and poems with a former lover, including this one, which in Japanese apparently contains double meanings hinting at a longed for but forbidden meeting.

At Suma Bay
on the beach is the sea grass
which one knows so well.
What do the women boiling salt
from seawater think of it?

(Translated by Jane Reichhold with Hatsue Kawamura)

Being a sophisticated city guy, Genji is charmed by the quaint scene of the peasant women boiling seawater for salt on the beaches. His lover's reply poem references, of course, briny tears on her sleeves over their separation. Sleeves dampened by tears / dew / water seemed to be a common image of pathos in Genji's time.

I, on the other hand, not having such emotions to draw upon now, boil down my thoughts into a poem that is more "salt of the earth:"

Bottle of sea salt--
this harbor's waters offer
something essential.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

March 6: Bird #100

Birders in general are a list-oriented group. We keep life lists of all the species we've ever seen, state lists, yard lists, and trip lists. I even keep a list of how many species I've seen at the Land Trust office (92). Earlier this week when we were on Sanibel Island, we met Don and Lillian Stokes (of field guide fame) in Ding Darling NWR. After learning that we were there for a week, Don suggested that 100 species was a good goal for a Sanibel bird list. Of course, we were only on Sanibel for three days--if he'd known we were also going to spend time in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Everglades National Park, he might have suggested a higher goal. As it was, we decided 100 different bird species was a good goal for intermediate birders like ourselves. So throughout the week I kept close track and updated my husband each night with the tally to date.

We left for the Fort Myers airport this morning having seen 98 species. Fortunately for our pride as birders, we arrived at the airport having reached our goal. Bird 99 was mallard--a small flock seen in a pond while still in Naples. Bird 100, however, was an unexpected and exciting one: two sandhill cranes flew overhead as we drove I-75 to Fort Myers! So with some sadness we leave behind sunny Florida, our gracious friends who hosted us for the past four days, and all these wonderful birds, but we leave satisfied.

Westward flying cranes
don't know their significance
to these two birders.

Friday, March 5, 2010

March 5: Last Day

Today was the final day of our vacation before we fly back to Maine tomorrow, and we spent a good part of it at the Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park. The canal along the seven-mile walkway there teems with birds, alligators and other reptiles, and butterflies--it's hard to decide when and where to turn around, because there's that constant anticipation of what you might see or hear next. One of my favorite birds seen here is the strikingly colored purple gallinule, but other highlights of today included a nest of fuzzy baby anhingas, young green herons walking on lily pads, another swarm of migrating tree swallows, huge kettles of vultures, singing white-eyed vireos, bobbing prairie and palm warblers, a foraging limpkin, a young wood stork rooting around in the weeds, and some cool butterflies: zebra, white peacock, and Palmida swallowtail. Knowing it was our last Florida outing, I just wanted to go on and on... But, as I was told as a child by an elderly woman I was staying with in Scotland, "All things come to an end, and the black pudding comes to two."

Always another
egret, spoonbill, gallinule
around the corner.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

March 4: Manatees

Today we went on a manatee tour out of Port of the Islands, just south of Naples. I've always wanted to see one of these endangered sea cows, and we were not disappointed. We saw at least a dozen of these half-ton mammals moving through the shallow water of the canal, looking just like--as our guide put it--giant potatoes. Several came right up to the boat, close enough that we could see barnacles and algae growing on their bodies, as well as (sadly) propellor scars on their tails. Social creatures, they hang out in small herds. Our guide Rick told us there are about 5,000 manatees left, and that the unseasonable cold has killed several hundred this winter. What I found fascinating is that these gentle herbivores each have to eat about 100 pounds of sea grass a day. At high tide they will also apparently forage on low-hanging red mangrove leaves, pulling them down with their fins. We saw one mother with a calf--they come up to breath in unison. She will care for and nurse the calf for what must be two very long years.

Manatee coming up for air

Slow-moving giants,
herds foraging for sea grass--
cows of the warm sea.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March 3: Painted Bunting

The male painted bunting is one of the gaudier little birds in North America, and for many years it was a species I only dreamed of seeing. I would look at its picture while thumbing through bird guides and think to myself, Someday I would love to see that.

Photo by Doug Jansen via Wikipedia Commons

This photo doesn't do the live bird justice. Blue head, red body, yellow-green back--it's like a bird from a kid's coloring book, an unreal combination of colors.

On my last trip to Florida, about four years ago, we went to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in an attempt to finally see this amazing bird. (We had made a previous attempt a few years before in Evergalds National Park.) Corkscrew is a noted place to see them, and because they put up feeders to attract the buntings, the key is to stake out a feeder and wait. So we got there when the gates opened, headed out the boardwalk straight to the feeder where they'd last been seen, and waited. And waited. And waited. After about an hour, a female painted bunting showed up. She's a very pretty lime green, distinctive in her own right. We were about to give up and just be satisfied with her. But finally the male arrived, and he was worth the wait. It just doesn't seem possible that such a bird is a natural creation. We felt we had been rewarded at last by the bird gods, who--believe me--are very fickle. (We also saw a bobcat while we were waiting, but that's another story.)

Today we arrived at Corkscrew a couple of hours after the gate opened. After we paid and were getting ready to head out onto the boardwalk, a docent told us that five painted buntings had just been seen on the feeder right outside the visitor center door. Five! I would have been happy with just seeing one more. We rushed out, and there they were. It seemed like buntings were everywhere--on the feeders, in the bushes, flitting about the underbrush. A cardinal and a red-bellied woodpecker got in on the feeder action. I counted four male painted buntings at one time. It was almost sensory overload--an embarrassment of avian riches. About five hours later, when we had walked the whole boardwalk loop, we decided to check one last time. This time, two males and a female were on the feeder. On top of just having seen several big waves of warblers, three swallow-tailed kites soaring in a blue sky, a red-shouldered hawk on a nest, and singing white-eyed vireos, I felt replete with birds. It was a satisfying day in the swamp.

Gaudy little bird,
just a handful of color--
thank you for being.
Lame photo taken with my pocket camera this morning. But just look at that color!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

March 2: Herons

Watching herons stalk their prey is a lesson in patience. Oblivious of onlookers, the heron ever... so... slowly... moves each foot forward, its gaze fixed on something in the water or grass. If the bird is in deeper water, it may simply stand there staring down into the murky depths. It's like watching someone meditate, so intently is the bird focused, so completely in the present moment. For the birder, it's a meditation on a meditation. The bird stalks so carefully, for long, drawn-out minutes. Then, just as you're about to lose interest and look away, bang! The bird strikes. For a brief moment, a bug or little fish squiggles in the bird's bill. You see the bird swallow and it continues on to seek out its next target. With that care and attention, I'm sure the bird doesn't miss often.

On Sanibel Island over the past three days we saw the following species of heron or egret: great blue heron, little blue heron, tricolored heron, snowy egret, cattle egret, great egret, green heron, reddish egret, and yellow-crowned night heron. This time of year, the main activities of these birds--other than croaking at each other--seems to be this interminable quest for food. Depending on the species, we saw them wading in the salt estuaries, picking among the mangroves, or patrolling the roadsides.

Slow, stalking heron
inching through the mangrove roots:
patience rewarded.

Little blue heron

Yellow-crowned night-heron

Monday, March 1, 2010

March 1: Captivated on Captiva

This afternoon Paul wanted to do some fishing, and a local fly-fishing guide recommended the beach on the Sanibel side of the bridge to Captiva. So while he froze his feet in the surf and caught nothing, I beachcombed on one of Florida's best shell beaches, then literally sat in the warm sand just a few yards away from resting groups of terns, gulls, and shorebirds. I couldn't stop snapping photos. The water was a brilliant turquoise, my feet were bare for the first time since last summer, and I got some great practice at identifying shorebirds as mixed flocks of willets, dunlins, knots, sanderlings, and Western sandpipers surrounded me. A Western sandpiper decided to curl up right next to me for a while, and later, while sorting through heaps of shells, turnstones practically walked over my hands while they too picked over the shells to find tiny crustaceans hiding underneath. Just before we left, a dolphin swam parallel to the beach, right past a guy on a boogie board. I think these few hours on the palm-lined beach were the most relaxed and happy I've been in months.

Here with sand, birds, shells,
roaring surf, passing dolphin,
I find perfect calm.