Friday, April 30, 2010

April 30: Downtown Hawks

For a lunch meeting on this beautiful, blue sky day, we didn't want to be cooped up inside, so we brought our sandwiches to the bright grass of Camden's Harbor Park. The ruffled harbor glittered before us in the sun and wind, its docks all in order, waiting for boats. Unwrapped from winter plastic, the windjammer fleet was waiting, too. A lone sailor hung from a seat high in the rigging of one of these grand old ships, helping to ready her for summer cruises.

While we ate and talked, a song sparrow serenaded us with his sincere song from a bush a few feet away. The wind gusted in our hair, and every now and then a townie pigeon would sail overhead. It took a few seconds to register that one of these "pigeons" was, in fact, a hawk. Even as it zipped by on the wind, its flap-flap-glide flight pattern revealed it to be an accipiter; its size indicated sharp-shinned hawk. Cool.

A few minutes later, another one cruised overhead. Then, a bit distant, another hawk, bigger than the sharpies, with a dark pattern under the wings--perhaps a red-tailed hawk? It was too high and fast for me to get a good enough look to be sure, though a veteran hawk watcher could have identified it from twenty times the distance.

Later, as I was running an errand in the center of town, I looked up to see an osprey flying steadily northward. Of course, ospreys nest in Camden Harbor, so this may have been a local bird heading to the lake for some fishing. But it certainly struck me as good fortune to see four hawks in the heart of Camden in about an hour's time. I guess that's part of the reason why we live here, that we have such opportunities. As if the shining water of the river pouring into the harbor and the mountain backdrop bearing a soft mosaic of spring's first leaves and buds weren't enough.

Embraced by the wind,
migrant hawks sail over boats
whose wings are still trimmed.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

April 29: Fickle

That old Maine saying, "If you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes" was carried to an extreme as we experienced over the course of today alternating and varying periods of full-on sun and snow (and sometimes both at the same time). Now, at day's end, the sun's shining gloriously, wind wildly rocks all the tree tops, and grey storm clouds glower on the horizon. The sky is still ready to give us anything it chooses at a moment's notice. Young women were scuffing flip-flops in snow, someone caught a big trout near my office, dandelions have invaded lawns, chickadees parked themselves in my bird feeder as snow fell--each probably as confounded as the other by the day's shifting weather.

Snow, sun, wind, storm clouds--
day's shifting moods affect mine,
fickleness of spring.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 28: Raindrops

Last night as I was falling asleep, I thought I heard the cat purring loudly next to the bed. I asked my husband if he could hear her, and he said all he could hear was the rain. It wasn't till a little later, when the cat jumped up on the bed and began purring, that I realized that the noise I'd heard wasn't a contented feline but was, in fact, rain drumming the roof, lulling me with its low, soothing cadence.

I thought of this when, laid low by allergies, I was trying to nap this afternoon. Rain was coming down again, only this time it sounded like a military parade drum-roll as it rhythmically tapped the propane tanks outside the bedroom window. Several years ago I recall awakening on a summer night to the sound of cars driving on wet streets, thinking I was hearing waves crash on my grandparents' beach. Rain can be so many kinds of music. As Eric Clapton sang, "The sky is crying, look at the tears rolling down the street..."

While the clouds were pouring and purring a rainy lullaby on our roof, snow fell silently northwest of here. Friends in Vermont report waking up to snow this morning.

Rain pours down, it purrs,
curls its tail around our house,
lulls us back to sleep.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 27: Waves

In a recent conversation with a friend about a surfing film festival he had attended, we both agreed that surfing movies were cool to watch because big waves are so fascinating. That's a simplification of the complex feelings many of us have for waves, which are truly energy made visible, manifestations of the action of wind upon the face of the waters. Growing up near the ocean, I have long loved watching waves.  My grandmother and I used to lie in bed and count to see if every seventh wave was the biggest. I would keep my bedroom window open in all seasons so that I could hear the crash of the waves upon the rocky shore, the rhythmic breath of the ocean. I paste a copy of Hokusai's 18th-century wood-block print "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"--an iconic image that has resonates deeply for me--on the cover of all my journals. Look at the loving detail with which he represents the wave's foam, the curling crest of the wave like a bunch of reaching claws or an opening mouth about to engulf the small boats below:

And therein lies my personal problem with waves. Fascination is the flip-side of fear. Ever since I was tumbled by a huge wave as a kid at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park, I have been afraid of waves. This fear has expressed itself all these years in my dreams. When I was a child, I would dream that the waves on my grandparents' beach were rising over the bank to carry away the house with me in it. In addition to that specific recurring dream, my subconscious shares with me on a regular basis many variations on the theme. In some dreams I'm swimming, and high-crested waves are carrying me away from shore or threatening to drown me. In others, I'm onshore and a wave sweeps over me. Last night I dreamt that I was watching some big rollers crash on a beach. The water was transformed into muscular blue fists--you could feel the power as they drew themselves up before pounding the shore. I was marveling from a distance at how amazing they were when suddenly a rogue wave lifted me up from behind. I had just enough time to think that I'd be lucky to survive its hurling me onto the beach and tumbling me around. Then I woke up. 

I guess it's a good thing I didn't go to the surfing movie fest, if just talking about waves gave me such a dream. Imagine what nightmarish images all those translucent curling wave shots, all those surfers tumbling into the foam, would have planted in my subconscious. 

Waves roll through my dreams,
curling around my childhood,
washing all away.

Monday, April 26, 2010

April 26: Shadbush

As I was driving away from my office today on an errand, I stopped the car in wonder at a beautiful flowering tree that I had somehow completely overlooked in front of the building. Granted, the tree is not outside my windows. And most of the flower-bearing branches are well above my line of sight. But still, you'd think I'd have noticed a 30-foot-high tree laden with sweet, white blossoms! The sun shining on it made all the white petals glow. The tree stood there like a revelation, an amazing artifact of spring. How could I have missed it all the years I've been working at the Land Trust? What's even worse is that I walked under that very tree earlier in the day without even noticing all those flowers over my head.

Something about seeing a leafless branch that has burst into blossom always gets me. It's as if the spring air had tugged them out of the wood, a small miracle. I think this particular miracle is a shadbush, though the shadbush trees I'm used to seeing in the woods are usually much smaller. The flowers look right, however, and "Forest Trees of Maine" says that shadbush (or serviceberry) can grow to 40 feet.

The shadbush blooms when shad are running. Shad are anadromous fish similar to alewives, so whenever I see the shadbush in bloom I know alewives will be running soon through Great Salt Bay and up the fish ladder in Damariscotta Mills. If a flowering tree is a small miracle, the alewife run is a big one. So this glorious tree is just the beginning...

Pulled from wood by sun,
shadbush blossoms remind me
of spring's miracles.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 25: Rain Crow

I chose not to bring my iPod and earphones on my run this morning along the river so that I wouldn't miss any new birds singing. This time of year it seems like I hear something different on each run. Sure enough, amid the usual suspects--house finch, goldfinches, titmouse, cardinal--I heard the dry trill of several chipping sparrows. They like to hang out near my office, so I imagine I'll be hearing more from them. Upriver along Route 105 I was delighted to hear a red-bellied woodpecker in someone's yard. Haven't heard one of those in a while. But best yet was hearing a bird calling "cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cu" in a wooded stretch along Molyneaux Road as I headed downhill toward the old fish hatchery. I stopped in my tracks and fruitlessly peered into the trees. I knew that sound: black-billed cuckoo. Along with its cousin the yellow-billed cuckoo, it's known as the rain crow.

The black-billed cuckoo is a fairly common bird around here, but very shy and so seldom seen. I've followed its distinctive call--a sort of breathy, bell-like, monotonous intonation--through the woods for a long time and never seen the bird. Other times, one will appear right in front of me for a minute or two but never make a sound. They come and go with silent magic. The bird I heard this morning is a remarkably early arrival to the area, but this spring everything has been early. Yesterday at the Arboretum I saw a caterpillar tent already crawling with tiny caterpillars. Caterpillars, especially tent caterpillars, creep me out. The fact that they come from something that looks like it was made by a spider doesn't help. So I particularly enjoy seeing (or even just hearing) a cuckoo, because cuckoos love to eat caterpillars. They can chow down a tent full in one sitting. My husband and I have stood ten feet away from a cuckoo while it was engrossed in eating its way through a bunch of caterpillars on an apple tree. Good bird.

The cuckoo of cuckoo clock fame is the European common cuckoo. I distinctly remember hearing one sing in Scotland when I was a child on a visit there with my grandparents. While the bird itself was rather plain, I was excited to have found it, because it sounded just like the clock in my grandmother's kitchen: "cu-coo, cu-coo." Our cuckoos are supposed to warn of imminent rain, hence the nickname. Thankfully, the bird's prediction didn't seem to apply to today, which remained gloriously sunny till late afternoon. The week ahead is supposed to be a wet one, though. Apparently when cuckoos get wet they sometimes have to air out their soft feathers by spreading out their wings in the sun like a cormorant. So it's not that the rain crow likes rain--he's just understandably sensitive to it.

Invisible bird
intones his warning of rain,
stops me in my tracks.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo photographed by me on Cape Cod in 2003.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

April 24: Crows Chasing Things

Wherein my fascination with crows continues... Early this morning I drove to Augusta to co-lead a bird walk at the Viles (formerly Pine Tree State) Arboretum in Augusta as part of the Friends of Baxter State Park's annual meeting. On the 45-minute drive, I saw a tom turkey in full display on top of a hill in Union. I wished him luck. I also watched a crow in hot pursuit of a mourning dove. As I drove along, it chased the petrified dove across three lawns. I couldn't figure out what was going on there.

At the Arboretum I enjoyed a brief but lovely walk on a warm, sunny Spring morning with a nice group of people. Tree swallows swarmed the bird box area behind the Arboretum offices, filling the air with their liquid songs. Love was in the air. Literally. Each box sported a pair of birds. I flushed a hen turkey near the rock garden. Ruby-crowned kinglets sang their surprisingly loud and complicated songs. We had close-up views of an obliging pine warbler, whose yellow head and throat caught the light. For the first time this spring I saw and/or heard five species of sparrow: chipping, Savannah, song, white-throated, and swamp. A Virginia rail responded to a recording by calling back from amid the cattails. I watched a pair of crows sweetly preening each other. Later, I observed two crows (the same ones?) dive-bombing a vulture, a much larger bird. A good morning.

On my drive home at day's end, I spotted a harrier dipping low over a field... being harangued by a persistent crow. At least crows seem to be democratic about what they chase. Drive away anything that is not a crow seems to be the rule. I wanted to capture that inclusiveness in today's poem. It might not seem very interesting, but it's just subtle. Like a crow.

Crow chases a dove,
crow chases a harrier,
crows chase a vulture.

Friday, April 23, 2010

April 23: Crow Chorus

Crows. I see them every day and they're always up to something. I could write a whole blog just about crows. Last night as dusk was creeping in around the edges of the trees, a murder of crows was clamoring and hollering up on Mount Battie. With my binoculars I could see birds flying just above the interlaced branches of the pine trees on the craggy mountainside. Crows swirled around, back and forth, in a caw-caw-caw cacophony. A couple of crows flew out from behind my house as if interested in joining them. They must have heard enough to figure out what all the fuss was about and decided it didn't suit them, because they soon turned back around. But the neighborhood crows are obviously homebodies, because it seemed like every other crow in town was up on the mountain yelling.

For some reason I don't think they were harassing another bird. Often the presence of an owl or hawk will provoke that type of gang response, but their flight patterns didn't seem directed at something perched in one spot or flying. A few vultures were soaring near them, so maybe it was as simple as the discovery of something large and dead in the woods up there. But I had the feeling that maybe they had found a fox wandering around and were following it. A friend who lives at the base of the mountain said she's seen them do that there. I'll never know for sure, but I certainly enjoyed puzzling over this latest crow mystery as I stood on my front step in the waning light. Ongoing eruptions of caws continued from the rocky slope of Mount Battie long after I went inside. Even my old cat seemed to pick up on it, pricking her ears. I wonder if the sound triggered some primal instinct in her, if crows used to chase wild cats through the woods in ancient times, dogging them like they do foxes.

Crow cacophany--
something's happening up there.
It's always something.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

April 22: Earth Day

This Earth Day I've spent a lot of time watching the sky. The cumulus clouds rolling in from the west to heap up against Mount Megunticook have been dramatic. Puffy piles of water vapor accumulating and dissipating fill the horizon in ever-shifting arrangements. Today would have been a good day to lie out on a lawn somewhere and observe cloud patterns. I see the Sphinx in the cloud below, or maybe a griffin. Poised next to a cabbage. A good day to let the mind wander a little bit.

How vapor becomes
a griffin poised on pine trees:
clouds, a relaxed mind.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

April 21: Broad-winged Hawks

Three-hundred ninety-seven broad-winged hawks were counted at the Bradbury Mountain hawk watch today. That's a lot of hawks. That's a good portion of the 653 total that have been seen from the hawk watch this month. Derek Lovitch, the official counter today, commented with his report that small kettles of broad-wings were moving through early and very high, visible only against the clouds.

I wasn't outside much today, so didn't have an opportunity to look for any hawks. (Yesterday I saw, perched roadside, my first and only broad-wing of the year so far.) But I could see enough out the window to know that big, fluffy, rain-saturated cumulus clouds were rolling through all day, at one point a bit thunderously. Knowing now that hundreds of hawks were swirling overhead while I worked away at my desk is a bit disconcerting. All that motion, all those feathered bodies being pulled northward, and I wasn't a part of it in any way.

During Fall migration, hawk watchers migrate to Mexico's narrowest isthmus. Because broad-wings and many other raptors don't like to fly over water, they don't fly over the Gulf of Mexico like many other migrants heading for Central and South America. Instead, they stay above land, funneling down the body of Mexico on their way south. The birds obviously become most concentrated where the country constricts. Hawk watchers in Veracruz, a city on the Gulf side of the isthmus, have counted 100,000 broad-wings in a day, and 2 million during a season. Pretty much all the broad-wings in the world pass over this point. A small portion of those hawks traveled over Bradbury Mountain south of here today, and a portion of those traveled over my head as they followed the ridges of the Camden Hills. It was going on all morning, and I missed it. But I love thinking about it, trying to get my head around the incredible miracle of that journey.

Kettles of broad-wings
carried by rain clouds northward.
And I, unaware.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

April 20: Comic Relief

I had to get up earlier than usual this morning for a meeting, and if you know me you know that unless I'm getting up early to go birding, mornings are not my best time. It takes me awhile to ease into my day. This isn't a simple matter of caffeine, either, because I haven't been a coffee drinker since college. I've always been a slow starter. So at what felt like the crack of dawn this morning, when the rising sun had just set fire to the treetops across the river, I sat at my desk groggily checking e-mail. Suddenly, a crow flew across the back yard carrying something white. I could hear a small gang of jays yelling. Then another crow plopped down on the lawn right outside my window with something white in its bill. They must have raided my neighbors' compost bin. I couldn't tell what the two crows had snatched, but the snacking crow's bill was covered with it. The crow looked like it had dipped its face in a bowl of frosting or whipped cream. Despite my morning grumpiness, I couldn't help but laugh aloud. Alas, when I stood up to get a better look, I inadvertently scared the bird away. When I got home this evening, there was no sign of anything white and messy back there, so it must have come back for its treat after I left. Most days I'm just thankful if there's something to get me going, and if it's something that makes me laugh, all the better.

Morning's first, best joke--
pilfering crow's white-splotched beak.
Laughed myself awake.

Monday, April 19, 2010

April 19: Sun-shower

This afternoon while running an errand I got caught out in a torrential downpour. I got soaked in about 60 seconds. It was rather invigorating. By the time I got back to the office, the rain had passed through. The sun shone, and vultures soared ecstatically in the blue sky, wheeling over Mount Battie on gusts of wind. And there I was with wet hair dripping all over my desk. But soon enough, another clump of clouds rolled in, and it began to rain again--though the sun was still shining, the western sky a wide scrap of blue. As we  were leaving work, a faint but full rainbow arced over the mountaintop, briefly bridging it with rapidly fading colors.

From the movie "Kurasawa's Dreams" I learned that this kind of sun-shower is the foxes' wedding day. If you happen upon the ceremony itself, as happens to a boy in the movie, you will never be able to return home. (That's just one haunting "dream" in this beautiful film.) I always think of it when experiencing this weather pattern, the scene of the fox bride and groom upright and dressed in ceremonial clothing, marching through the trees with their wedding procession, one of them turning to look right at the boy spying on them...

Interestingly, in checking it out just now as a bit of Japanese folklore, I discovered that the theme of a trickster animal getting married during a sun-shower is common all over the world. For many cultures it's foxes, but in Bulgaria, apparently bears get married, and hyenas in Kenya. In other places, devils or other evil spirits get married. What's up with that? That's the kind of thing I would have loved to have studied back when I was taking folklore classes in grad school.

In any case, foxes in this neighborhood should have done their "marrying" a couple of months ago, so I'm not worried about stumbling upon their wedding. What does worry me, however, is that some night I'm going to hear a vixen screaming in the woods and drop dead of a heart attack.

Sun shining through rain--
fading rainbow a bower
for foxes' wedding.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

April 18: Hidden Treasure

Most of today was spent sitting at my desk writing, but much of that "writing" time has consisted of looking out the window at my back yard and the river. Not much going on back here. A neighbor's cat meandered through. A fisherman walked along the riverbank, casting a few times without much conviction into the slow-moving water. Some blue jays hung out for a while, yelling from the maple tree. A couple of mallards flew upriver. And one or more squirrels made several passes through the yard, apparently searching for the buried treasure of last year's acorns. He, she or they make little pits in the lawn in this occasionally fruitful quest.

When I undertook my back-breaking Day of Raking Hell last month, I uncovered a lot of acorns under the dead leaves. Today the squirrels were taking full advantage of the acorn-studded lawn, criss-crossing here and there, stopping to sniff each leaf and lump. There are a lot of squirrels in my back yard--I've counted three pairs at one time, and almost always see at least one when I look--but I've never stopped to think about what they're living on. We don't have bird feeders (thanks to the squirrels), and other than a couple of oaks worth of acorns, there's not a lot else that seems edible this time of year. Once in a while I'll set an overripe tomato or squash on an old stump near the shed and am later gratified to find shreds of evidence to indicate the meal was enjoyed. There must be other things in the neighborhood they're finding to nosh on, because they're clearly thriving.

Just now, one has looped its way over the grass, tail a graceful, dipping plume. Another has just hopped up on the stump, holding something to its mouth. Now it's hopping up the path to the back porch. Coming to borrow a cup of sugar?

Fall's stashing, caching,
has yielded this: old acorns
unearthed like treasure.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

April 17: Cacophony of Finches

While up the road in Northport they awoke to snow this morning, here in Camden it's a grey, cold, but otherwise uneventful day in terms of weather. The empty sky plays a blank white backdrop for red maple buds. Other than a squirrel poised on a tree trunk waving its tail with the frantic energy of a parade-going kid with a flag, the back yard is quiet as the sky. Up the river at my parents' house, however, it's a different story. The pine and birch trees around their house are full of birdsong--a clamoring chorus of primarily goldfinches and purple finches, accompanied by a brown creeper, a handful of blackbirds, and what sounded like a trilling chipping sparrow. A lively bunch over there. Goldfinch music comprises long, voluble, and varied bursts of chattering, mewing, and chirping. I'm not sure why they're all so wound up, because unlike most songbirds, they won't breed and nest until mid-summer. Maybe they're just excited to have back their bright yellow plumage and to be able to enjoy the progressively longer days. Or maybe all that singing helps keep them warm. In any case, the crazy cacophony of all those birds injected the proper note of excitement into my husband's birthday morning.

Paul's birthday highlights:
sunbursts of forsythia,
yellow finch singing.

Friday, April 16, 2010

April 16: Not a Broad-Wing

This morning as I was leaving for work, I heard a broad-winged hawk calling. It's a distinctive call, a piercing, high-pitched whistle. (You can hear it here, though if you don't click away from the web page, the song repeats indefinitely. If you have dogs near, it will probably drive them--and you--crazy.) It called repeatedly (somewhat like the link I just posted) but rather faintly for a hawk that also sounded like it was in my back yard. I looked up and didn't see anything soaring overhead. They've been migrating through in high numbers this week, according to the Bradbury Mountain hawk watch, and I was looking forward to seeing my first one of the year. Often in summers past I've heard the call and stepped out into the yard to see a broad-wing or two circling in the sky above Mount Battie. I know of at least one pair that has nested in the area. But the sky was empty today as far as I could see. Then I realized: I was being duped by a blue jay.

And not for the first time. I've heard blue jays imitate broad-winged hawks, red-tailed hawks, and ospreys. I've also recently heard a blue jay respond to the "beep-beep" of my car door opener, both in my own driveway and elsewhere, with a perfect-pitch imitation. It wasn't just a fluke either; it beeped back in the same way each time I opened the doors. I'm not sure what the evolutionary advantage is to being such a successful mimic, but given that the blue jay's specialty seems to be raptors, perhaps it's to mess with other birds, to scare them off their eggs or otherwise distract them for some nefarious purpose of its own. Or perhaps it just enjoys playing with sounds. Jays are generally very verbal birds, and tricky. This one certainly played on my expectations this morning, as if it knew just what I was hoping to see and decided to taunt me.

No broad-wing, just jays--
spring's teasing reminder of
what's not yet returned.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15: Swamp Sparrow

This morning after a meeting in Rockland I made a short side-trip to Weskeag Marsh before heading back to the office. A birder friend has been reporting glossy ibises and gadwalls. Of course I didn't see either of those locally uncommon birds, but it was a rewarding trip nonetheless. About a dozen great blue herons were scattered throughout the marsh among the gulls, as well as one great and one snowy egret. A kingfisher perched on a branch, making short forays for fish. One heron flew in close and seemed to stalk a large piece of plastic that had blown into the marsh. I wondered if it was curious. But I soon realized what was really holding its attention, as it suddenly stabbed into the shallow water right next to the plastic and brought up a little fish. (I assume it was a little fish--whatever it was rapidly vanished down the heron's long throat.) A red-tailed hawk soared over the tree line, scouting its borders. I could hear the short song of a Savannah sparrow in the weeds, and then, the musical trill of a swamp sparrow.

At least I thought it was a swamp sparrow. Every year I seem to learn a few more bird songs. Last year I picked up the swamp sparrow song and was able to identify a few birds by ear that I later confirmed with my binoculars. I'm not good in general at telling apart all the trilling songbirds. Palm and pine warblers, juncos, chipping and swamp sparrows--listening to them on recordings just makes it more confusing. So I began to second guess myself--maybe it was a palm warbler? They're migrating through in numbers right now, so wouldn't that make more sense? I had to track the bird down in an alder thicket to be sure. And I was quietly proud of myself when it did indeed turn out to be a swamp sparrow--proof that I had really added another bird song to my crowded brain.

I was also excited because the swamp sparrow's a very pretty bird, with a red crown, grey face, white throat, light breast, and feathering in earth tones from buff to rust to sienna.
For many minutes I watched him, admiring these subtle details of plumage, till he dropped out of sight. Across the road where there's a little pond, another swamp sparrow sang. A harrier soared up over the pannes as I gave one last look out my windshield. And I headed back to work with a smile on my face.

Swamp sparrow's sweet trill--
such simple satisfaction
in naming that song.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 14: Seeing Red

This afternoon, like some strange flashback to fall, I was struck by the red haze in the trees as I drove past a stretch of budding maple trees. Poplars are starting to leaf out in places, too--the leaves are about the size of a squirrel's ear--so there's an interesting interplay of red maple flowers, freshly minted yellow-green poplar leaves, and that robin's egg blue sky that you only see in spring. Not my favorite color combination as far as nature's palette goes--a little garish for me--but because it indicates the progression of the season, I'll take it.

Like the magnolia, the maple blooms before its leaves unfurl, and seen up close the flowers are frilly, intricate little things:
From a US Forest Service website on trees, I learned this: "Red maple flowers are structurally perfect." Of course they are! What product of nature isn't?

I also read this: "The species is polygamo-dioecious. Thus, some trees are entirely male, producing no seeds; some are entirely female; and some are monoecious, bearing both male and female flowers. On monoecious trees, functioning male and female flowers usually are separated on different branches. Sex of the flower is not a function of tree vigor. The species shows a tendency toward dioeciousness rather than toward dichogamy." I'm not entirely sure what that all means, but it sounds like a maple stand is a bit of a red light district, with some gender ambiguity and interesting flower sex going on.

Blooming maple tree,
the rush of spring through your limbs
makes us both redden.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

April 13: Fiddlehead

Fiddleheads are just starting to burst through the earth into daylight. On a lunchtime stroll around my office today in hopes of absorbing energy from the sun like a plant, I noticed several fuzzy brown fern knobs poking an inch or two above the lawn:

Little fern embryos slowly unfurling, opening themselves to air and light for another season. They look like small animals curled up for a nap. I'm remembering this patch contains interrupted ferns--a fern with big fronds whose green leaflets are "interrupted" by sections of brown, spore-producing leaflets. Interrupted fern fiddleheads are not edible, and in fact would probably make you ill even if you didn't mind their bitter taste. So these critters are safe from this fernavore, at least. 

Here in Maine most fiddleheads on the menu are baby ostrich ferns, and I'm anticipating their appearance in our local markets any day now. My husband steams them, then mixes them with spaghetti pasta and a little butter and parmesan to make a perfect, light, springtime meal. 

Unfurling fern fists
punching their way into light.
Our hearts, too, open.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April 12: A Letter

Today I came home from work to find a special piece of mail in the usual pile on my coffee table. My 3-1/2-year-old niece had left a "letter" in my mother's mailbox (with a cat sticker for a stamp) and raised the red flag. To ensure that I would actually receive this precious communication, my mother then snuck it out of her mailbox and into mine. In big, wobbly, but legible letters, my name was written on both the front of the envelope and on the "letter" inside. The well-folded letter also included what I think was a purple portrait of either me or her. Seeing my name spelled out in her childish scrawl gave me a weird flashback to myself at about the same age writing my name on a birthday card for my grandfather. She even made her R the same way I did back then, like a circle with two legs. Making that card is one of my earliest memories. My two nieces are about as close to my own children as I'll ever get, so the moment was one of those full circle things--my niece is me 40 years later. And soon she'll be reading, writing stories, learning cursive (if kids still do that). Her own journey as a writer is just beginning.

Today is also the birthday of my sister, the mother of my niece. Since I was nine when she was born, I remember that exciting day--and the progress of her own childhood--well. How fast it all happens. And now that little baby I was convinced was going to be a baby brother, the little girl who wanted to be a ballerina and always posed for the camera, now she has two beautiful girls of her own. Sappy, I know, but that's what inspired me today. Happy birthday, Erin. And thank you for the lovely letter, Fiona.

Those big scrawled letters
are they mine or hers?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

April 11: Grass

This afternoon I returned home from my weekend on Vinalhaven and was shocked to see how unkempt--indeed, almost overgrown--my lawn looks. I don't think I'd raked the yard by this date last year. In fact, I don't even think the lawn was fully thawed by this date last year! But spring seems to have arrived early, and these past two bright days the blades of grass in our postage stamp-sized yard have clearly been sucking in the sunlight and photosynthesizing like crazy. Solar power rocks!

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by all this. There were other signs. On a walk through moss-lush woods on Vinalhaven this morning, we came across a vernal pool that was already clotted with cloudy masses of frog's eggs. Driving home from the ferry, I was startled to see in Rockland a fully flowered pink magnolia. My neighbors' rhubarb is up. I've read reports that in some Maine streams alewives are already running. Mourning cloak butterflies have emerged. Less exciting but no less interesting from this seasonal perspective, I've heard the deer ticks are already awful (first quarter Lyme disease cases in Maine are higher than they've ever been), and black flies--whose only value is as bird fodder--have been observed in the local woods.

But back to my yard. I let most of my back yard grow free, since no one sees it and I enjoy the wildflowers. So the front yard gets all the attention. Tthat's where my main flower beds are, so I like it to look cared for, to fully showcase the poppies and peonies, the hostas and herbs. Also, as I type this, I'm watching the final day of the Masters. Those beautifully manicured golf greens taunt me with their perfection. Bottom line: I'm going to have to mow soon.

Spring's battle heats up:
green blades sprung from earth's scabbard
to face the mower.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

April 10: Mussel Shells

My friend Elizabeth and I have been enjoying our one full day on Vinalhaven for our alleged writing retreat. OK, granted last night we drank wine and read poetry to each other, but did we do any writing today? How could we, when after yesterday's fog we awoke this morning to a sparkling harbor and a day before us with no plans? Mid-morning we decided to walk around town. Before we could get far, the nice shop owner across the street (whom we met yesterday while doing our part to contribute to the local economy) offered to take us for a drive around the island. So we saw the relatively new Vinalhaven school, the Eldercare home where elderly island residents can enjoy the last phase of their lives without having to leave the island, a granite quarry that looks like an amazing summer swimming hole, a renovated old school that is now the town office, the launching place for boats to North Haven--which looks close enough to swim to from there--and the three giant, surprisingly graceful-looking new wind turbines, of which 99.9% of the islanders (according to our driver) are very proud.

Back on foot and on our own, we walked through town to Lane's Island, connected to Vinalhaven by a causeway. Most of the island is a Nature Conservancy preserve, so we wandered trails through bayberry and brambles along the windy water's edge and visited the old Lane family burial plot. We enjoyed views of a young harrier, a vocal male kestrel precariously balanced on the tip of a spruce, my first flicker of the year, a bald eagle, and my first north-bound yellowlegs. Also admired the architecture of many of the older buildings in town, as well as the colorful jumble of lobster traps, buoys, and ropes that I find so appealing in working fishing harbors. All that chilly wind and fresh air exhausted us, so Elizabeth is napping now to the white noise of the mill race on a falling tide. While she settled down to sleep, I stepped out to snap a few more photos as the light brightened, and that's how I came across today's haiku moment.

While wandering around the public pier next to our inn looking for photo opps of the harbor, I was startled to hear the sound of tinkling little bells. For a moment, I was reminded of a conversation I had this morning with a shop clerk about The Polar Express and how thrilled her young grandson was to receive a real "Polar Express" jingle bell for Christmas. It's not Christmas, but some sort of magic was making music in the bracing sea air. Upon close inspection of the detritus blowing across the parking lot, I realized with some surprise that sound was the result of tiny mussel shells--originally brought up on lobster traps now drying on the pier--blowing across the pavement. Here's one of the shells, in situ and larger than life (actually about the size of the end of my thumb):

With every brisk gust of wind, handfuls of these little shells skittered across the asphalt (which as you can see from the photo is not smooth), creating their own dynamic and exquisite wind chime.

Tiny mussel bells--
magic music of mollusks,
a living wind chime.

Friday, April 9, 2010

April 9: Island Ferry

My friend Elizabeth and I are spending the weekend on Vinalhaven, ostensibly for a writing retreat, though as she said when we saw the palatial room we're staying in, "I don't know whether to take a nap, curl up with a book, take a bath in that big tub, or open that bottle of wine and watch the fog." Here's our view to the left:

The skies are supposed to clear tonight, so maybe by tomorrow all the fishing boats will emerge from the thick fog.

The thing about visiting islands it that you have to take a boat to get there. The ferry ride from Rockland was about an hour and 15 minutes, during which time Elizabeth and I sat across from each other in the cramped passenger area, with just a wall of white out the window, and gabbed. When we landed, it was almost startling to be reminded that the rather dream-like ride was just the passage, the means to the end, and now we were where we had wanted to be and had to actually get up and do something about it. It was as if it was enough just knowing we were on our way to this island retreat--we could have happily remained in anticipatory limbo for hours more. I was reminded in a way of Elizabeth Bishop's brilliant poem "The Moose," which beautifully captures the lulling rhythm of travel. Our journey, however, was unpunctuated by anything exciting like a moose sighting. Just lots of fog, rain, water, and a handful of gulls washed clean.

Lulling wave rhythm--
our ferry takes hours in fog,
rocking in limbo.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

April 8: Owl Dream

Last night I dreamed that I was lying in bed while great horned owls hooted loudly in the woods outside the house. It was one of those dreams that was so vivid I awoke wondering if I'd really been dreaming. Could my subconscious have perhaps picked up on real owls? My memory flashed back to summer nights when I had heard barred owls outside my parents' house right up the river, hooting in the wee hours in loud chorus with the loons.

Someone I know reported hearing four or five barred owls calling in one spot the other night. Barred owls are courting now, which makes them as restless and sociable as hormone-addled teenagers. While barred owls call year round, but right now they're particularly chatty. My friend Ron can imitate perfectly their common nocturnal query: "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?" He's summoned a group of maybe half a dozen barred owls that called back and forth like a pack of monkeys in the jungle and got so worked up at this perceived invader that one flew right over our heads. They can make some crazy noises in the dark, noises that don't always sound owlish and aren't always soothing to awaken to.

Photo Credit: Hal Korber/PGC

Now that I've raked the leaves off my flower beds and have been paying attention to what's coming up each day, I notice on an almost daily basis the stone owl carving that sits amid my herbs. I've always been drawn to owls, and like to think of this one as a sort of guardian of the garden. My neighbor's little girl, who is such a fan of owls that she dressed up as one last Halloween, likes to come over and just look at it. When I woke up last night after my owl dream, I had this weird sensation that maybe the owl stone had come to life and was warning something away from the house.

Teens on street corners;
barred owls hooting like monkeys:
spring courting begins.

To hear them for yourself (the owls, not the teens), visit the Cornell Lab's barred owl page and scroll down below the photo to find the "Typical Voice" recording. But don't blame me if you have weird dreams!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

April 7: On the Move

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I'm writing this blog entry while waiting for my car to get its 30,000-mile tune-up. Even Bath Subaru's waiting room has free wi fi! I spent this morning before my car appointment on the move running some errands in the Portland area. On the drive down, notable bird sightings included an osprey and a turkey. The hawk watch on Bradbury Mountain in Pownal reported that the wind had shifted this morning, so now southwesterly--just what the hawks want to boost their migration mileage. By 11:45 they had tallied 50 birds and that was just about when things were "really starting to pick up." Before I learned this, however, I had noticed many more birds soaring overhead as I drove back north. I picked out three, maybe four, eagles, a bunch of vultures, and two ospreys. And that's just what could be seen directly overhead while I sped along 295 between South Portland and Bath--imagine what else is out there following the ridge lines and thermals on this clear day. There's also an osprey back at the nest in the Route One median in Bath.

When we were up on Bradbury Mountain the other day for a few hours, at one point an osprey flew directly overhead, giving us all beautiful views of its brown and white plumage, crooked wings, and fingered wing tips. I can picture it in my head as clearly as a snapshot. But what struck me most as I think back now was its gaze--that steely-eyed focus on the distant horizon ahead. We humans directly below on the open ledge meant nothing to this bird. Nor the houses, the roads, the streams of cars, the smoke of brushfires. The osprey was on a mission, a mission encoded in its very genes. Its steady flight northward was an inner directive powered by the essential, awe-inspiring force of Nature itself. A force even more miraculous to me than wi fi!

Osprey flying north
impelled by some inner force.
I'm moved to follow.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

April 6: A Spot of Color

As I pulled out of the driveway this morning, giving my front lawn one last look, I was delighted to see two unexpected spots of color amid the inchoate sprigs and twigs of what will one day be a lush flower garden again. On the right side of the lawn, a single little daffodil added a cheery touch of yellow. Among the perennials on the left, a primrose once again surprised me not only by surviving the winter but by blooming before anything else had barely pushed forth incipient leaves. Not bad for a plant that I bought at Hannaford on a whim a few years ago. The tiny hot pink blossom was a button of color against the bare earth of the raked bed. Once the other plants leaf out, the primrose will be hidden, so it's taking advantage of its time to shine. It was certainly appreciated this morning as I paused on my way to work, roused from my usual early morning daze.

Not a host, but one
golden daffodil, primrose.
Ah, longed for color!

Monday, April 5, 2010

April 5: Another Season Begins

Hallowed rite of spring:
crack of ball on bat; third out--
Red Sox beat Yankees!

Last night a new baseball season began, complete with a lot of pageantry, a deep-seated rivalry, and a satisfying come-from-behind win: Red Sox versus Yankees on opening night at Fenway. Both teams received the courtesy of a full introduction, from the bat boys and massage therapists on up to the starting pitchers (Beckett, Sabathia). Old Johnny Pesky made an appearance, Lowell got a standing ovation (as a back-up player), a smiling Pedro threw the first pitch, Neil Diamond came out to sing "Sweet Caroline" in person in the 8th inning, and the Sox won 9-7 despite being down 5-1 at one point. Of course, it all meant staying up till midnight, because Red Sox-Yankees games always run at least four hours. And it all came back in those four hours--the thrill of this placid but nerve-wracking sport: watching your favorite players make good plays, a 7-pitch 1-2-3 inning, the solid thwack of a well-hit ball, an unexpected homer, the ethereal green field under the lights, the crowd chanting "Yankees suck!" and the anticipation as Papelbon pitches for the final out of the ninth... We were all yawning in the office today, but also smiling.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April 4: Easter Sun

As I type, the sun is just dipping below the treeline across the river. Thank you, Sun, for such a lovely holiday! The last rays diffuse through branches, and now I'm seeing spots from trying to maintain eye contact with the blinding orb.

After a lovely Easter brunch with my parents at the Hartstone Inn this morning, my husband and I decided to burn off our strawberry crepes with creme Anglaise, lobster and asparagus quiche, and coconut cake by hiking up Beech Hill. Even with the inevitable breeze at the top, the air still felt like summer. A strange summer, however, with the fields still dry and dead-looking and no leaves on the trees. And still very few birds. All we saw from where we stood were the local pair of ravens, some vultures heading southward, and the ethereal pale shape of a "grey ghost"--a male harrier soaring low over the fields in search of lunch. Curiously, no other hawks, though I'm sure today was another good day for raptor migration. Returning to our car, we saw our first local phoebe silently wagging its tail in a nearby tree. And several local teenagers in short-shorts, tank tops, and flip flops--who could blame them for wanting to pretend summer had arrived, expose that sun-starved flesh?

With our friend Brian, we soaked up some more rays and watched a few more birds at Weskeag Marsh: blue-winged teals and other ducks, an eagle, a great egret trailing lacy breeding plumage, several hysterical-sounding killdeer. The glare on the salt pannes made it difficult to see well. But hard to complain, when sunlight has been so hard to come by.

Finally, at home on a Sunday afternoon, the day of rest, I got my folding chair out of the shed for the first time since last fall and sat on the back porch reading a book until the sun began to hit the treeline. The rushing music of the river muted all other neighborhood sounds except a squirrel scolding from the yard, and I indulged in an hour or so of rare and luxurious relaxation of my favorite kind. And bug-free at that. Good night, Sun.

Real peace is simple:
good Norwegian mystery,*
a patch of sunlight.

*I'm reading Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast. Nesbo is supposed to be Norway's version of Sweden's Henning Mankell, whose noir mystery thrillers I highly recommend to those who enjoy the genre.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

April 3: Ice Cream and Frogs

We were in the Freeport area today, so we checked out the hawk watch for a few hours at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal. On the short hike up, brown creepers, juncos, and phoebes sang. From the summit we--along with about ten other birders--watched kestrels zip past overhead, red tails shining in the sun. Sharp-shinned hawks flapped and glided in circles around us. In the distance, red-tailed hawks, an eagle, ospreys, turkey vultures, and a goshawk were picked out one by one by the official observers (and eventually us), each bird recognized by its silhouette and flight pattern. A pileated woodpecker called in the forest below us. Tree swallows darted past, the first I'd seen this year. A golden-crowned kinglet hopped in the branches of a nearby tree, crown flared. It was the kind of birding experience that gets my heart racing, and I had all intentions of writing a poem about it. However, as exciting as it was to see those raptors soaring by on their primeval quest to get north, and to see and/or hear other first-of-year birds, different signs of spring gave me today's "haiku moment."

First cone at Round Top:
two scoops with jimmies. Later,
first peeper chorus!

Friend and fellow poet Carl Little has a great spring poem called "Zones of Peeper," about driving around this time of year with the car window cracked open, passing through literal zones of frog song as you go past each vernal pool or wetland. For a moment, the sound pours over you, your heart thrills to it, and then it's gone. We only passed through one zone this evening, but the first one of the season is always the most exciting. Especially if you do so while finishing off an excellent almond joy and Indian pudding ice cream cone.

Friday, April 2, 2010

April 2: Fog Bank

As I drove from Camden to a meeting in Rockport, this morning seemed idyllic: warming air, birds singing, clear blue skies, that hopeful gleam of spring... But as I passed Hoboken Gardens on Route One, suddenly a giant cloud monster of a fog bank rose before me. The sun was working hard to dissipate it one strand at a time, but as I drove farther south, the light was blocked and fog surrounded me on all sides. Calling it a fog "bank" makes it sound like a solid object, but beyond its sheer bulk, this wall of cloud was moving eastward fast and loose, swirling strands of mist rising to dissipate in the sun's heat. It was as if the fog was trying to outrun the sunlight that was slowly but surely burning it away.

The old Carl Sandburg poem "Fog" came to mind:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

But this fog colossus wasn't tiptoeing in on "little cat feet." More like something with big huge padded feet, like a cloud polar bear. Or maybe large birds, a dense flock of tundra swans, heavy and feathered...

Something that's nothing:
vapor erased by sunlight.
Misty metaphor.

Again I find myself inspired by the ephemeral, by something as insubstantial as fog. I remember my grandmother telling me that when she took flying lessons back in the 1930s (this was back in the days of open cockpit planes), she couldn't believe that when she stuck her hand out into the clouds, there was nothing there. Just as today, watching the mass of fog creep and twist its way up the coast, it was hard not to imagine it as alive in some way.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 1: Calm Seas

I walked on the Rockland breakwater after work this afternoon with my friend Brian and his dog. It was truly the calm after the storm. Big wads of seaweed were strewn across the top of the breakwater, tossed there by recent high tides. Something big had clearly happened out there. But today the wide sky opened clear and blue above us, the sea calmly lapped the shore, the tide had pulled back to an unthreatening distance, and even the birds seemed mellow--except one insistent cardinal whose repetitive whistle sounded like a siren. We saw several loons pausing on their journey back to inland waters, some mergansers, eiders, and a small group of lingering long-tailed ducks carrying on a late afternoon chat. They seemed in no hurry to be heading northward. The air was mild, no breeze at all. Two biplanes flew over like we were in some weird nostalgic old movie. Looking back at the granite jetty as we were leaving, the long line of massive cut stones shone golden in the late light, stretching out like a delicate bridge to the lighthouse at the end.

Hold this memory:
loon's red eye gazing back, calm.
Blue skies, blue water.

Photo by Brian Willson

Simplistic, perhaps, but sometimes it's the most basic and ephemeral of images that stick with us the longest, something spotted along the road as we drove past at 50 MPH, a single bird glimpsed in a bush, the way the light shone for just one moment on a particular rock or tree.