Monday, May 31, 2010

May 31: Memorial Day

On our last day here on Monhegan we decided to hike out to Black Head through Cathedral Woods. The Cathedral Woods Trail is the one trail on the island where people are allowed to put up "fairy houses"--and then only using non-living items such as fallen twigs, bark, pine cones, and shells. I don't often hike that trail, so this is not aspect of Monhegan culture that I have much experience with beyond knowing that at one time they were outlawed altogether out here because some thoughtless people were pulling up living plants and destroying moss and lichen beds to create their fairy houses.

Most of the fairy houses we saw today were simple creations--some twigs stuck in the forest duff covered with roofs of bark and decorated with pebbles and pine cones. One fairy house had what looked like a pool. Some had rough furnishings. But the one that really touched us was the one most appropriate to today's holiday, a memorial of sorts: inside one sheltered arrangement of twigs lay a carefully placed, dead ovenbird. Outside someone had erected a little cross made of two twigs tied together with a strip of bark. Whatever happened to this little bird deep in the spruce woods, its passing was treated with reverence.

If an ovenbird
falls in the forest, fairies
honor its passing.

Photo by Brian Willson

Sunday, May 30, 2010

May 30: Waxwing Love

We hit the Monhegan trails early this morning, drawn by anticipation of what might await us. This is my favorite time of day out here, as the sun rises over the Meadow to illuminate the corridor of blooming lilacs along the dirt road into the heart of the village. To the left is the harbor and Manana; to the right, past the old yellow house and above the Meadow, the lighthouse. Blackbirds flash their red epaulettes as they chatter and dive in the reeds of the marsh, and with any luck, small songbirds crawl through the greenery of lilacs and apple trees. Drenched in early light enriched by the vivid colors of flowers and the alluring warbles of birds, the morning lay before us full of promise.

Our first bird sighting, besides a mixed flock of grackles, starlings, and mallards eating bird seed in Tom Martin's yard, was just past the market, above a tangle of lobster traps, pallets, and colorful ropes. A pair of cedar waxwings, obviously a couple, sat perched side by side on a lilac branch. As we watched them, they passed a red berry from bill to bill several times. Then one flew down to grab a new berry, and they shared that one back and forth for a while. Waxwings are one of my favorite birds, in part because they're so beautiful--sleek brown with yellow bellies, a black mask, a crest, and red on the tips of their wing feathers like sealing wax (hence the name). But also because they're gentle, gregarious birds. You never see just one. Out here, even as some of them are obviously establishing pair bonds with these sweet, berry-passing rituals, flocks of a dozen to a hundred waxwings will sweep overhead with a rush of soft sounds and then land in a spruce tree all together like one big happy family. It's hard not to love them.

So no matter what the day ahead brings in the way of bird life, the joy we found at its start, with the two courting waxwings, will resonate throughout.

A berry shared, two,
gently passed from bill to bill
with such tenderness.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

May 29: West Meets East

And I'm not talking about the Asian-style dinner we ate tonight at the Trailing Yew, either. My husband and I are out on Monhegan Island for the long weekend, birding with our friend Brian. As is usual during this holiday weekend during spring migration, we ran into many fellow birders while traipsing around the island today. Of course we ask what people have been seeing so we have an idea of what we should be looking for. One of the first "good bird" rumors we heard was that someone (a non-birder) had supposedly photographed a bird at Lobster Cove this morning that was later identified as a Western kingbird. No one we ran into had seen this bird, so we were skeptical. But also hopeful.

Western kingbirds are rare in the entire Eastern half of the US, with the exception of wintering populations in southern Florida. If you hit the plains of West Texas, you'll find one on every fence post--a pretty, grey flycatcher with a yellow wash on its belly. But here in New England--not so much. Hardly at all, in fact. In the East, we have our very own Eastern kingbirds, a black bird with a clean white belly that right now seems to be migrating through in numbers. Early today we observed maybe half a dozen of them darting about the Meadow, the island wetland / water supply. But no Western. And no one else who had seen one either.

Until late afternoon just before dinner, when a birder we knew came running up the hill waving her arms at us. The Western kingbird was in the Meadow right now! We jogged down the road until we reached the knot of birders all peering intently into the tall grass, where a couple of Eastern kingbirds were flitting about. Another birder we knew said the Western had been seen about 20 minutes ago--her husband kindly showed us some photos--but it seemed to be lying low in the weeds. We all waited about ten more minutes in a rather festive mood--as if waiting for a parade--when our patience was finally rewarded: the Western kingbird flew up to perch on a wire fence in perfect, full view of all of us. Even better, an Eastern kingbird then flew up to perch a couple of feet away. Western and Eastern, side by side (at least till the Western decided to chase off the Eastern). That's the kind of moment that makes birding on Monhegan so wonderful.

Western kingbird (left) and Eastern kingbird (right). Photo by Brian Willson.

Western meets Eastern
kingbird--this offshore island's
bird magic made real.

Friday, May 28, 2010

May 28: Moon Rise

A good night: Friday, work done for the week, four, maybe five days off ahead of me... Paul's reading at our local bookstore went well, attended by friends and family, and then dinner out with friends at a restaurant along the river. As we were walking up to the restaurant, a big flock of geese flew over honking musically, magically, on their way to the lake inland. Lots of laughter, good food, and then as we were driving home in high spirits, we caught a glimpse behind us of the almost-full moon rising huge and orange over Camden Harbor, right alongside the church steeple at the center of town. As if the whole evening were leading up to that moment of breath-taking, otherworldly beauty.

Dinner, drinks with friends.
A rising moon glows orange,
color of my joy.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

May 27: Wicked Cute Owls

Early this morning I had plans to go over to a friend's house before work to see two baby great horned owls that live in the woods around her house. She's observed them since the beginning of May, has watched the mother owl bringing them food and keeping an eye on them. A few days ago, in fact, she watched one of the adults carry a rather large mammal up to the owl restaurant--she was hoping for her garden's sake that it was a woodchuck.

But just as I was about to leave, the phone rang. She hadn't seen them for two days, she said. So, no baby owls for me this morning.

Around 11:30 I got a call at work. The owls are back! Come over quick while they're right here!

So I drove to her house on a hill surrounded by beautiful old pines, with a view of the bay. Perfect owl habitat. She took me to the upstairs room from which we could easily see two fat owl fledglings perched side by side on a pine bough right outside the window. They were back to us, so all I could see was two fuzzy blobs that looked like big stuffed animals leaning on one another as if for support. A few trees away, deeper in the woods, we could see one of the adults, probably the mother. She had a sleeker body shape and her cat ears were more obvious. And her eyes were clearly focused on her two wobbly offspring. I have no doubt that she noticed our movement behind the window, too, though she didn't leave her perch.

A couple of years ago I had spent a few months watching three great horned owls on a web-cam as they hatched, matured, and fledged. When they flew the nest, they appeared similar to the two I saw today, live: ungainly, puffy things that looked like they would bumble through the trees. Yet my friend said when these two spread their wings, you can see their flight feathers are growing in rapidly. Day by day they'll be able to go farther and faster.

My friend told me that the owlets' nocturnal begging calls--a series of insistent shrieks--sound like someone being murdered in the night. The mother owl will watch over them and feed them throughout the summer, until they stop their heart-stopping screaming and learn to catch their own prey. Hard to think of something so cute and gawky maturing into the strong, silent killing machine that is an adult great horned owl. But with luck, they will.

Fuzzy baby owls,
by summer's end you'll both be
silent night hunters.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

May 26: In the Sky

Driving through Rockport early this evening, I had one of those "wow" moments. As I headed south down Route One toward what appeared to be dense clouds, at one point I turned my head to see the leading edge of the fog mass. I almost went off the road as I took in what I was seeing and actually did exclaim aloud. I know fog is nothing unusual around here, but this particular formation was like nothing I'd seen before--a tangible, sharp thing cutting through the air like the smooth silvery wing of an airplane, or perhaps something softer but still solid and forceful, like a shark's fin. Carefully feeling its way, this curved rim of fog sent out wispy tendrils ahead of it as it progressed visibly northward. Strange and beautiful, mist made animate, the movements of this cloud beast seeming purposeful--a strange-looking UFO slowly invading the sunny blue skies before it (like those space ships on "Battlestar Galactica" that are actually living beings). (The mind makes some strange connections in the presence of such atmospheric funkiness).

Farther down the road, a broad-winged hawk flapped low over my car to land in a nearby tree. Even farther along, as I was stopped at a light, a turkey took off from the side of the road, barely clearing my windshield. With all this going on overhead, it's amazing I made it intact to my destination.

Sky released its hawks,
its cold, creeping edge of fog;
for fun, a turkey.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

May 25: Purple

For today's post I'm primarily going to let these photos of what's blooming in my yard right now speak for themselves. Clearly I have a penchant for violet, though soon all these blossoms will be joined by frilly white peonies and the reds, oranges, and pinks of daylilies. With temperatures continuing in the 80s, these cool, soothing shades of purpley-blue against the rich green background of the lawn seem just right, just what the eye needs.

I've identified most closely with the color purple for as long as I can remember--I've always felt lucky that my birthstone is amethyst, a purple form of quartz, and that the flower associated with my birth month is the violet. So perhaps unconsciously I've loaded up my flower beds with this color. If you study chakras (the body's energy spots) and their associated colors, the violet-indigo-blue end of the spectrum covers the crown, third eye, and throat--head and neck, basically--and represent good things like oneness with the divine, peace, balance, intuition, and verbal expression. Without getting too New Age-y, I like to think that we are drawn to particular colors at certain times because we need something from them. Today I feel a calming connection to the colors of my flowers, as well as the desire to verbally express that uplifting connection with a haiku.

Drawn to these purple
flowers, my hot head is soothed,
cool balance returned.

Monday, May 24, 2010

May 24: Great-crested Flycatcher

As the cardinal has quieted down in my neighborhood, his repetitive whistles have been replaced by the brash calls of another avian big mouth: the great-crested flycatcher. I heard his "breep, breep" this morning when I first awoke. All day long I could hear his urgent, sputtering calls outside my office window. And I hear him now as I type on my back porch, the sound carrying over the racket of several cawing crows. "Breep, breep..." Like someone whistling for a dog, only buzzier.

He's so insistent and just plain loud that I'm surprised no one else ever really notices him. Several times during the day I heard that noise from my desk and had to laugh, he sounded so demanding, perhaps a little desperate. That's what hormones will do to a guy.

This striking bird is deserving of some attention. He's not a lipstick red cardinal, of course. But he's no skulking sparrow, being noticeably bigger than his fly-catching cousin, the phoebe, and sporting a lemon yellow breast, a regal crest, and rusty red on his wing feathers and tail. A bird worth looking for with the binoculars as he sings from a high perch, master of his domain. The great-crested flycatcher usually lives near water--better for flies there--so we're lucky to share his habitat here along the Megunticook River, even if he can be a bit raucous as a neighbor.

An interesting side note: the great-crested flycatcher has a habit of weaving snake skins into its nest. No one is really sure why it does that. I like to think that it's an aesthetic choice. A bird as vocal as this one just seems like the type who'd want to sport some snake skin.

Noisy flycatcher
announcing your place in things--
lord of the tree tops.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May 23: Buttercups

Driving back from a warm and bird-filled outing on Beech Hill this morning, I passed a set of lush, velvety green farm fields. In what must have been a wet pocket in the corner of one, thousands of buttercups clustered together to form a glowing yellow bowl of flowers in all that green. The next field contained a similar buttercup hollow. The effect was stunning and surprising, for both the numbers of flowers all massed together as for their cumulative brightness. The little yellow faces of those many blossoms dazzled the surrounding landscape.

As kids we held buttercups under each other chins to see if the yellow would reflect, meaning we liked butter. Those buttercups holding themselves up to the chin of the sky, where the yellow sun shines back--what does that mean?  Does the cosmos like butter too? And why shouldn't it? What scene is more bucolic than a lush pasture in which soft-eyed, butter-producing (grass fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free) cows graze placidly amid the yellow lights of buttercups under a perfect blue sky?

What's up, buttercups?
Galaxy of yellow suns
swirls in a green sky.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

May 22: Grosbeak Opera

The rich, warbling song of the rose-breasted grosbeak is often described as sounding like a robin who took singing lessons. So today when I was standing in the middle of an old farm field swaying with timothy, surrounded by the music of four rose-breasted grosbeaks, I felt as if I were being given a private performance by the Three Tenors. My avian serenade was highlighted by the sighting of one of these beautiful birds. I'm not sure how all those hormone-addled male birds tolerated being so close to one another, but there must have been an invisible territory system in play that kept them all happily singing rather than chasing one another away.

The combination of the heady birdsong, ripe fields, lupines in bloom, and the faint backdrop of cricket music gave this lovely day a sensual summery feeling. Given that summer is officially a full month away, I hope this means we're going to have many more of such moments ahead of us to savor.

Photo by Heather Gerquest (not the bird I saw today)

Thrilling decadence--
grosbeak serenade surrounds
the flowering fields.

Friday, May 21, 2010

May 21: Morning Sounds

I love waking up for a few minutes around dawn to hear the birds welcoming the day--the jubilant dawn chorus--before I fall back asleep. Last night was so warm I left the bedroom window cracked, hoping to be awakened this morning by birdsong. When I did wake up for a brief period in the day's wee hours, however, no wave of melodious warblers was moving through our back yard. I didn't even hear robins, whose rollicking songs open and close each day--just some chickadees and a phoebe, their songs punctuating the constant rush of the river in the background.

My husband, who usually wakes up at least an hour before I do, was away last night. So after I fell back asleep, there were not even the noises of his puttering around the house getting ready for work to rouse me again. I slept till the alarm went off. It was unusually restful, but when I did finally get out of bed, I felt something had been missing.

No dawn chorus, nor
your usual morning sounds--
only the river.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

May 20: Horse Chestnuts

Tonight as I drove to Rockland for sushi and a movie, I passed two glorious horse chestnut trees all leafed out and in full bloom. The sky held that rich light normally seen on early summer evenings--it certainly felt like a summer evening--and the white blossoms on the trees seemed to glow from within. I was reminded, in a way, of Swedish Christmas trees decorated with lit candles. So many flowers, such an abundance of beauty, and all the promise ahead of me of the kind of night when the sidewalks are busy with people like me made joyful by this early warm weather.

Tree full of candles
lights my way into twilight.
It feels like summer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

May 19: Routine

Having spent this entire rainy day inside at my desk working intensely on several projects, I'm realizing that no image stands out in my mind to inspire a haiku. It was a pretty routine day in front of the computer and on the phone. I ate my usual lunch at my desk. The blue jay visited my feeder again, looking absurdly large and gawky. The tapping chickadee visited the feeder several times throughout the day, as it does every day. The rain fell harder, then mellowed out by dusk. I worked after everyone else had left the office, as usual, and came home to the Red Sox on television. (An Ortiz home run lifted my spirits.)

Meanwhile, while I was experiencing my ordinary day, birders in North Conway, New Hampshire were observing a most unusual rare bird: a scissor-tailed flycatcher. Not your routine spring migrant, the scissor-tailed flycatcher is a bird of the southern plains, the state bird of Oklahoma. The only ones I've ever seen were on a birding trip to Kansas a few years ago, although it's a bird I'd dearly wanted to see since I was a kid. Take a look in a bird book and you can see why. That long, crazy, split tail--how can that be real? And when the bird hovers to catch flies, trailing that wacky tail behind it, its underwings flash a beautiful russet color. It's a graceful, lovely, unusual creature, and absolutely does not belong anywhere near downtown North Conway, NH. Apparently only three or four of them have ever been recorded in that state, and none recently.

So while for me today was business as usual, it was reassuring to know that somewhere out there something cool was happening.

Same jay, chickadee.
Yet just a few hours away,
bird I once dreamed of.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May 18: Prairie Warbler

This morning I led a small group on a bird walk at Coastal Mountains Land Trust's Head of Tide Preserve in Belfast. We began our outing by walking along the power line corridor that bisects the preserve, primarily because I knew we'd find prairie warblers there. Not only had at least two birder friends reported seeing them there in the past two weeks, but I myself had come across a few on a short visit to the preserve on Sunday. So I wanted to start our walk with an interesting bird, with something out of the ordinary for midcoast Maine.

Prairie warbler is a misnomer, as the birds are not found on prairies. Instead, they prefer shrubby grasslands and forest edges. For the past few years I've been hearing them sing from bushes amid the blueberry barrens of Beech Hill in Rockport, for example. And they're a common nesting species at Kennebunk Plains in southern Maine. While finding them this far up the coast is unusual, finding them along a power line corridor is not. And as was the case today, you can often follow the cut and hear one bird after another singing in its established space.

It's a pretty bird, primarily yellow with black streaks on its side and a distinctive black facial pattern. Similar to the palm warbler, it also wags its tail frequently. But the most notable thing about this warbler is its song, the buzzy notes of which ascend quickly, as if moving up a scale. (If I were a musician I'm sure I could describe the song in a more technically accurate way.) Have a listen (you've got to scroll down a little bit to click on the song). It's unique and easily recognizable--the first prairie I ever found I identified without even seeing the bird first, because I'd heard a recording of its voice and it stuck with me. I remember thinking that it sounded like the bird was getting ready to blast off at the end of his song.

Buzzy yellow bird,
as your song ascends the scale,
my spirits rise too.

Monday, May 17, 2010

May 17: Anniversary

Seven years ago today my husband and I got married at Children's Chapel in Rockport. Every year on our anniversary we visit the Chapel, which has been a favorite place of mine since I was a child. While I never actually envisioned myself getting married there--unlike many girls, I never imagined getting married at all--there has always been something special about this stone, open-air, non-denominational chapel surrounded by flower-filled gardens, blossoming trees, and tall pines, and boasting a view of the bay.

On today's visit we noted that it was significantly warmer than the day we got married there, when I wore lacy white long underwear under my satin gown. On that day the only things blooming were some tulips and a small flowering magnolia. With spring having arrived early this year, the gardens were lush and fragrant. Pink rhododendrons lined the walkways, forget-me-nots carpeted the lawn, crabapples were already dropping petals onto the stones. On the ocean side, a pine warbler trilled, and we watched a barge slowly make its way down the bay. On the lawn side, parulas buzzed in the cedars. I had a fleeting thought that it would be fun to get married there all over again, with the warm weather gods on our side this time. Renewing vows seems to be the fad right now, after all.

As beautiful as today was, however, I wouldn't trade it for that day seven years ago. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the theme of our wedding was ravens, specifically the ravens associated with the Norse god Odin: Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory). Without getting into the intricacies of meaning those had for us then, I can honestly say that those themes are just as relevant in our married life now. As we revisited the site where our married life began, we remembered the joy we felt at taking this big step together while surrounded by those we loved and who loved us. And we also shared thoughts that could only arise out of sharing more than 13 years together.

remember the joy we felt?
Let's hold those thoughts close.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

May 16: River

When I have time to myself to head into the woods and look for birds, one of my favorite places to go is Coastal Mountains Land Trust's Ducktrap River Preserve. While my husband was occupied with writing today, I woke up blissfully late, drove to Lincolnville, and hit the trail. Because of my late start the bird song was winding down for the day. Sun shone on the river, and as has often happened when the trees aren't dripping with birds, I crouched down on the mossy riverbank amid the ferns and simply watched the water.

In the past this exercise of living in the moment has brought me interesting rewards. Once a veery walked slowly out of the woods and came within ten yards of me. Another time a red-shouldered hawk flew low overhead, yelling at me. Sometimes an invisible winter wren will suddenly burst into his enchanting song across the river, the long serenade accompanying perfectly the rushing sound of the river. Often the drumming of a ruffed grouse can be heard like a heartbeat thrumming from deep within the woods behind me.

The river is not deep here, nor wide. Its gravel bed, clearly visible through sepia-toned water colored by tannin from the roots of conifers upstream, appeals to wild Atlantic salmon--the Ducktrap is one of eight remaining rivers that still hosts a (small) indigenous population of this endangered fish. The initial stretch of the northbound trail closely follows the river for about a quarter mile, offering several good vantage points to sit and absorb the beauty of the place. I won't say quiet beauty, because the trail there is still close to the speedway that is Route 52. But this morning was relatively quiet, except for a handful of warblers and the low "quork, quork" of a nearby raven.

The raven's call made me think of my husband--ravens were the theme of our wedding, and tomorrow's our seventh wedding anniversary. I'm sure he would much rather have been on that riverbank with me today, casting a fly into the current where I saw first one, then another fish rise above the surface of the water.

From the mossy banks
I watch fish rise in eddies.
Wish you were with me.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

May 15: Chips and Guacamole

Many years ago I spent the January term of my junior year in college camping out in the Sonoran desert of western Arizona. Most of my days were spent hiking through the Buckskin Mountains assisting two geology majors with thesis work. We had a lot of fun exploring, but we also had work to do and we took it seriously. But even so, every few days we'd find ourselves quitting a little early and driving the 30+ bumpy miles on dirt roads and through dry desert washes into the nearest town, Parker, where we'd stock up on Corona (cheap so close to the Mexican border), tortilla chips, avocados, and guacamole mix. (And things to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, of course, although to be honest I can't bring to mind any other food item we ate on that trip.) These supplies were most essential to our psychological well-being. At the end of every dusty, tiring day, the first thing we did when we got back to camp was to mix up some guacamole, which we enjoyed with the chips and beer. Guacamole has never tasted so good, and we came to crave it like addicts.

Tonight my husband and I had dinner at a favorite restaurant, El Camino in Brunswick. El Camino prides itself on serving local ingredients in an authentic Mexican style. It does many things well, but the part I always look forward to the most is the first one--noshing on hand-fried tortilla chips sprinkled with sea salt and loaded with incredible homemade guacamole. The first bites of guac often send me back to those long-ago weeks in Arizona when at each day's end all we could think about was that first scoop of creamy avocado goodness washed down with a mouthful of Corona with lime. Those fond food memories are tinged with sadness--the friend who convinced me to join them on that trip passed away several years ago. But I think he'd be amused to know that the act of eating chips and guac frequently brings him to mind.

Chips, guacamole--
who would have thought they'd trigger
such strong memories.

Friday, May 14, 2010

May 14: Primary Colors

This morning I led a bird walk at the Ducktrap River Preserve. The birds were relatively quiet, which is understandable given how chilly it was--I wore my fleece gloves almost the entire time. A highlight for everyone was a pair of scarlet tanagers. We heard the male's husky, robin-like warbler off in the forest and crossed our fingers that he'd cross our path. The bird gods heard us, and eventually the bird flew close enough so everyone could enjoy good looks at his brilliant red coloring. He posed and sang. But we soon realized he wasn't putting on a show for us. Teed up on a tall pine nearby was a lemony-green female tanager. For a while the two birds perched together, giving us a field guide view of the plumage differences between genders: bright red male, bright yellow-green female. Probably a mated pair at that. As we admired them, a blue jay flew into a nearby tree, rounding out the color wheel and thoroughly brightening an overcast morning.

Red bird, yellow bird,
blue jay: primary colors
on forest's palette.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

May 13: A Few Quiet Hours

It's a rare evening when I get out of work early enough to enjoy a few hours of sunlight with no household chores or other tasks filling up the precious time before dark. Tonight I was able to sit on the back step and read a book while basking in rays of the slowly sinking sun, the carpet of the lawn spreading before me in soothing green, the river sparkling beyond. As the sun sank lower, I had to move to a new perch next to our young quince bush bursting with ruffled peach-colored blossoms. In the same garden patch some irises were budding for the first time. Everything around me was lush, green, flourishing. My husband was fishing down river, out of sight. All was right in the world. I read my book to the end and went inside feeling a rare peace.

Sun filtered by leaves
shines on this calm green temple:
back yard, this evening.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May 12: Blueberry Milk

Sometimes a day's pleasures are simple ones: my first chestnut-sided warbler singing as I walked into my office; a Cooper's hawk chasing a flock of pigeons; a big patch of baby blue forget-me-nots blooming in my back yard.

And blueberry milk with my lunch today at Farmer's Fare. I love blueberries. Blueberry milk makes regular milk more palatable. The glass pint bottle that it comes in is pretty cool to drink from, too. Somehow blueberry milk seems slightly more grown-up than chocolate milk. I wish it had been around when I was a kid, though. I drank a whole pint with my lunch and barely forebore drinking another one with my dinner. Maybe if there'd been blueberry milk when I was a kid I'd be taller now--good for the bones and all that. As it is, at my age, hopefully it will at least help prevent me from shrinking with osteoporosis.  

Blueberry milk and
ghost stories shared with a friend
make for a good lunch.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

May 11: White Violets

When I was a kid I loved to pick the little white violets on the front lawn before my grandfather mowed. They were ephemeral and therefore all the more valued. According to my grandmother's birthday book, violets are the flower corresponding to my birth month, February. So I felt an affinity for them and saw it as my duty to save as many as I could from the mower's blade. My grandmother had a special, miniature vase that held my violet bouquet perfectly. I would take my 10x hand lens from its handmade suede case and closely examine the violets' tiny purple faces as if they were secret flower fairies that only I knew about.

This time of year, though I mow my front lawn regularly, I hesitate to mow in back where the patchy green is sprinkled with dainty constellations of those same white violets. By the time they're gone by, my lawn is about eight inches high and sprouting frilly clumps of ferns and other interesting flora. Last year I ended up not mowing till fall.

In my unkempt lawn
sprays of small white violets grow
beautifully wild.

Monday, May 10, 2010

May 10: Appetizer

Thanks to being completely slammed by pollen allergies this spring, I've had a slow start with my birding season. As we head into the peak of spring migration and birders are seeing more than a dozen warblers an outing, my high point to date has been the ten minutes before work this morning. During a brief tour of my back yard, I enjoyed a little bird sampler of things to come: a great blue heron sailed through and landed in the river, five different warblers sang amid the leaves, a male downy woodpecker flew into a tree right next to me, and goldfinches mewed from the birch tree in the driveway.

Given that the air was a raw 40 degrees and I was running late to work, I wasn't intending to devote any time to birding this morning. But as I was getting ready to leave, I could hear the song of a redstart out back. I had to heed the call. So I grabbed my binocs just to get a quick look at this striking black and red little bird. Before I could successfully locate him, a parula sang, then a black-throated green warbler and a black-and-white warbler. I thought I had him in my neighbor's oak tree, but that bird turned out to be a Nashville warbler. Finally I picked him out in a nearby arborvitae. I'm sure there were other warblers back there, too, but alas, duty called.

Happy to have experienced that old thrill of a birding a warbler wave, small as it was, I left for work regretful that I didn't have more time to bird. As I walked into the office, I heard my first great-crested flycatcher of the season calling down by the river. This good start to my work day whetted my appetite for what I hope will become a gourmet banquet of birds in the month ahead.

Redstart sang to me
of sunny, bird-filled mornings,
fanned his pretty tail.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Sunday, May 9, 2010

May 9: Numbers

5    maximum hours I estimate I slept last night
7    blueberry muffins my niece and I baked this morning for Mother's Day brunch at Nanny's / Mom's house
2    warbler species heard singing today
17  trout caught by my husband in the river behind our house this afternoon
1,642   ranking of Paul's book on Amazon as I type
1.5  hours I think I just napped after being unable to keep my eyes open any longer
6    channel on which the soothing golf match was televised
2    songbird species heard on t.v. while falling asleep to golf
1    warm, loudly purring cat napping with me

And thus I summarize the highlights (excepting the first item) of my day. Not very poetic, granted, but some days are like that.

Napping with my cat
while Paul fishes, with golf on--
some much-needed calm.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

May 8: Black-throated Green Warbler

This morning my husband came in from fishing on the river behind our house to report that not only had he caught an auspicious seven trout, but he had also heard his first black-throated green warbler of the season. These portents put him in good spirits, because, as he puts it, today is the second biggest day of his life after our wedding day: this afternoon sees the launching of his first novel at a book party being held for him at the home of a best-selling novelist here in Camden.

But I'll leave the topic of his novel's publication for his blog. In addition to being excited for him today, I was happy to hear about the black-throated green warbler. And even happier when about an hour later I heard its languorous, buzzy song from within the shining green cave of leaves and lawn that has become our back yard: "Zee zee zoo zee."

I love to teach people the song of the black-throated green warbler, because it's easy to learn and during the spring and summer the birds are commonly heard around here. Also, for those who don't realize it's a common bird, its name sounds very exotic. The warbler is eye-catching, as well, though small enough that you have to do a bit of looking. You won't recognize it as a visitor to your backyard feeder. Its bright yellow face is framed at the neck by a black throat that contrasts strikingly with its white underparts.

Photo by John Harrison 

The BT green sings long and loudly throughout the day, well into the summer. The variant of its song heard via the link above is often transcribed as, "Trees, trees, murmuring trees." For me, that song conveys the essence of walking in the local woods on a summer day amid the murmuring trees, an image I embrace on this rainy spring morning.

On this rainy day
warbler sings, "Zee zee zoo zee"--
promise of summer.

Friday, May 7, 2010

May 7: Goldfinch Courtship

The torture of being stuck behind my desk while the sunshine poured in was periodically alleviated as birds visited my window feeder throughout the day. At one point I watched a pair of goldfinches passing seeds back and forth and snapping their bills at one another in a decidedly amorous way. This is unusual because unlike the other birds we see now, goldfinches shouldn't be courting. They are summer nesters, so as to coincide with the appearance of thistle seeds. This pair either can't wait, or has been led hormonally astray by this unseasonably warm, sunny weather. Whatever the case, their delicate little ritual was touching to observe.

Fooled by all this green
two goldfinches share a seed--
an early courtship.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

May 6: Midnight

When Dick, a birder friend, called me at work yesterday morning, the first thing I said was, "What'd you see?" His reply, "You're going to think I'm crazy." Then, "Listen." And he played me a recording of the song of a chuck-will's-widow. If you're not a birder, that name alone probably makes you think you understand the bit about thinking he's crazy. But, like its cousin the whip-poor-will, chuck-will's-widow was named for what it sounds like it's saying. Loudly, over and over again, in the middle of the night. So the name isn't what's crazy. The crazy part is that chuck-will's-widow, a bird of the south, is normally nowhere near Maine. There are only a handful of reports of this bird being seen (or more likely, heard) in the state. And yet there it was, according to Dick, singing outside his window at 5 a.m.

After he hung up, I immediately emailed an ornithologist I know who's compiling a complete record of Maine's bird sightings. He replied that there were only six or seven records of chuck-will's-widow in Maine and that, on the slim chance the bird might have stuck around, I should go out that night to try to hear it for myself. So when I found myself still awake at 11:30 last night, thanks to a good mystery novel, I decided to have a listen. 

As I slowly drove around Dick's neighborhood in my pajamas at midnight, it occurred to me that I might need an excuse in case someone got suspicious and called the cops. And explaining that I was looking for Chuck Will's widow... well, not so sure how that might go over. But I saw no cops. Or other cars. It was a beautiful night for driving around listening for a bird that wasn't supposed to be there, the warm wind blowing through my open car windows. I drove past an open field and paused for a while, thinking that might be good habitat for the bird. A loud chorus of frogs hummed and trilled in the background. The cloudless sky twinkled with stars and at least one planet (Mars). I felt grateful that my wild bird chase had led me to such a perfect moment, a moment when I would normally have been sound asleep. 

Empty of birdsong
yet full of stars, singing frogs--
back road at midnight.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

May 5: Mutants

I have this weird memory from when I was four years old. While playing in the driveway one day, I came across a really big ant sitting on a log. I remember well the rush of fear and panic at seeing such a thing--it must have been three inches long--although it didn't pay any attention to me. I remember running into the house, not wanting to play in the driveway again, and going out later with some trepidation, hoping it had gone away. But of course, there are no giant ants, even in the strange state of Missouri where we were living at the time. So odds are good this was a dream. Still, that giant ant has stalked my memory for almost 40 years.

Something about oversized things freaks us out. Horror movies take good advantage of that fact, giving us giant spiders, giant snakes, giant carnivorous rabbits ("Night of the Lepus," anyone?), giant killer tomatoes... They don't fit into the natural order of things. (Funny how mutating radiation always makes things in movies bigger or more powerful.)

Which is why tonight I was so horrified by a mutant dandelion plant that I couldn't even bring myself to touch it. Granted, I don't like dandelions anyway. Besides playing a role in my spring hay fever, they mar my lawn. And when you pick one, the stem oozes a milky fluid. Things that ooze milky fluids are creepy too. So I'm already predisposed against dandelions. And then I saw this one. It looked like four or five flower stems had melded together to form one giant stem at least an inch across, a strange succulent-looking stem that was not normal. The unopened flower heads themselves were connected like conjoined siblings. When I first saw the plant, I did a double take and blinked a few times. And noticed there were actually two giant mutated stems in the clump. If there'd been more light, I'd have taken a photo.

The plant borders the sidewalk, so I can't help but wonder if someone disturbed the plant in such a way as to cause it to mutate like that. Or if it just bloomed into a dandelion monster all on its own. It was truly freakish. I left it alone.

Evening calm disturbed
by mutant dandelion.
Not a dream this time.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

May 4: A Few Good Warblers

This past week as waves of songbirds have been pouring into the state, I've been stuck at my desk working and periodically reading reports on the Maine birding maillist of what everyone else has been seeing. A lot of warblers have been showing up, many of them on the early side, so it's been a little frustrating to have to work so hard at this exciting time of year. These colorful little gems of the bird world are among my favorite birds to seek out during spring and fall migrations. In the spring, there's the thrill of their return after many months absence, as well as the joy of seeing them in fresh, bright plumage (they favor yellows and greens) and hearing their varied songs. In the fall, they pass through silently and with muted plumage, presenting an interesting challenge to birders--which is why there's a whole section in the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds called "Confusing Fall Warblers."

Pine warblers are among the first to arrive, and I've been hearing them in the tall pines around my parents' house since early April. In late April I added yellow-rumped warbler. And this week a black-and-white warbler has been singing its "squeaky wheel" song outside my office. But people have been reporting everything from Louisiana waterthrush to blue-winged warbler to Blackburnian warbler this past week, and I was hungry to see more. Warblers are like candy for birders, and each spring outing is measured by how many warbler species were seen. In Maine it's possible to break 20 species on a peak mid-May day with a good fallout of these pretty little birds.

Today I finally had some small satisfaction. On a work outing to snap some photographs in Hope, I heard warblers singing as soon as I got out of my car: black-and-white warbler, then an ovenbird's "teacher, teacher, TEACHER!" from deep within the trees, and off in the distance, a black-throated green warbler's "zee zee zoo zee." As I walked along the trail, I flushed a yellowthroat, catching a quick glimpse of its black mask. Before I headed back to the car, I had even added bluebird and hermit thrush. I wasn't out for long, but that hour was a rewarding one.

Familiar singing
and bright new feathers--warblers
back from the tropics.

Monday, May 3, 2010

May 3: Conclave

My mom and I sat out on her deck after work today, enjoying the gusty warm wind driving the clouds over the river. Clouds and big patches of blue marbled the sky. Wind rushed and sussed through leaves budding in many shades of bright green along the water. The air was as muggy as a summer afternoon before a rainstorm. Somewhere in the woods across the road, a snapping turtle the size of a dinner plate was laying her eggs.

Above us in the trees the blackbirds and grackles were holding a conclave. My mom says they gather every morning and every evening, just hanging out making a racket together. The blackbirds were particularly vocal, their buzzy trilling songs wafting down from on high. Every now and then the flock would fly across the lawn into a pine tree, the grackles standing out in silhouette because of their larger size and vertical, rudder-like tail. Then they'd fly back. Mostly they just perched there together, all facing in the same direction, a small flock of black birds making all manner of companionable squeaks, chucks, and squawks. Males awaiting females. Not much different than a bunch of guys hanging out in a bar. As the sun sank lower, a peeper joined in the chorus. A vulture swooped by on a gust of wind. Doves cooed softly.

There are few things more relaxing than just sitting by the water, watching birds with my mom.

As I drove away, I hadn't gotten far down the road when I saw a black shape in front of my car: a snapping turtle. I stopped, put on the hazard lights, then found a stick to try to push her across, to hurry her along. That had the opposite effect, as she turned and jumped, snapping at the stick/me. I went to Mom for help, but she said turtles cross the road here all the time and that this one would be fine. Sure enough, my mother knew best. As we watched, the turtle hustled across the road and continued into the woods on the water side--what she'd been trying to do all along.

At my mother's house
blackbirds converse with grackles,
turtles safely pass.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

May 2: Freak Tulip

I was finally able to spend a bit of time puttering in the yard today and came across this one odd tulip growing just outside one of my flower beds. All my other tulips are red, so this one is an oddball of unknown origin. Lucky for the tulip, I've only had a chance to mow the yard once this spring, and thus it had enough time to pop up and blossom in a place I would normally have mowed.  

Where did you come from,
odd tulip gracing my lawn?
Glad I didn't mow.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May 1: Derby Day

As is usual for the day of the Maine Land Conservation Conference--a day for which I am either in a car or in classrooms attending workshops all day--it was one of the most beautiful days of spring thus far. Well, duty called, so that was my day.

In addition to the first Saturday in May always being Conference day, it's also the traditional date of the Kentucky Derby. I've been an avid watcher of the Triple Crown races since I was ten and could recite all the Derby winners. I arrived home from Topsham tonight just in time to watch the post parade and then the race. Not having had time to do the research to make an informed decision about which horse might win, I chose by jockey. Calvin Borel has won two Kentucky Derbys in the past three years. He rides a great race. I figured if one of the best trainers in racing put him on his horse, even a horse that doesn't have a shining race record, the horse, Super Saver, must have a shot. Also, the trainer, Todd Pletcher, hasn't had a Derby winner yet despite winning many other Triple Crown races. He was due. Thus I found myself rooting for Super Saver.

I wish I'd had a bet on, because darned if Borel didn't ride that horse to a smooth victory. Watching horse races always makes me cry. Part of it is the thrill I get from watching these beautiful animals doing what they're bred to do and run as fast as they can. (I ended up becoming a competitive runner as in my youth because I was always running around pretending I was a race horse, so I relate to them on a personal level.) Part of it is watching the emotional responses of those involved with the horses--the sheer joy on the owner's face as his horse crosses the finish line ahead by 2-1/2 lengths. (Well, I thought he was the owner, but turns out he was the guy who won a sweepstakes that enabled him to place a $100,000 bet on Super Saver!) And a small part of it is, I think, a touch of nostalgia, remembering when I used to watch the Derby with my grandmother, who also loved horses.

A much younger self
races around Nana's house.
Run for the Roses!