Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 30: Webs

Monhegan grows some huge spiders. I'm told that most of the monsters I've come across out here are garden spiders, "like Charlotte." That still doesn't prevent me from shivering a little each time I come across one, which is often. In the morning when the dew is on the webs, you can easily see how many spiders have set up shop, their webs strewn among the spruce boughs like scraps of the finest lace. In a barberry bush next to the entrance to one building, four giant spiders with bodies the size and shape of strawberries have woven their webs, one behind the other. Last night when the spiders were on their webs and the strands shone, it gave the little colony an eerie three-dimensional effect. The owner of the inn is fond of one right outside her office window. She says she sometimes watches her (as with falcons, the female is larger than the male)for long periods of time instead of working. I can admire their handicraft and their good work keeping down the fly population, though I don't want to get too close to the creatures themselves. The other night a spider the size of a small rodent crept across the porch. Funny how I wouldn't have been bothered if it had been a mouse, but it being a spider freaked me out.

Complacent spider
oblivious to my fear
mends her perfect web.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 29: 100

A haiku composed by my friend Amy Lake this morning on Monhegan:

In a parlor lit
six friends meet to play with tiles.
Laughter is the game.

This morning, after an evening spent playing Bananagrams by kerosene lamp in the Trailing Yew dining room, I was lucky enough to see trip bird species #100: a blue grosbeak. We had just admired a pretty juvenile white-crowned sparrow in a burning bush, its ruddy crown contrasting with the maroon leaves, when my birding buddy Bill spotted it in nearby bushes. A regular fall visitor to the island in small numbers, this large finch is not sporting its dramatic summer blue plumage. This time of year it's a warm, rich brown, distinguishable from all the other brown birds out there in the shrubbery by buff wing bars and large bill. A good find, which we were able to share with many--a big group came along soon thereafter and we all watched it at the top of an apple tree. Photos by my friend Brian to come...

It's all in the quest--
walking damp trails all morning
for that one quick glimpse.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September 28: Highlights

At the end of a day of birding, we sometimes ask each other, "What was your best bird today?" There's often some rarity or life bird that's an obvious choice. Today, it would be a toss up between another, close viewing of the yellow-throated warbler and a first sighting of a yellow-throated vireo, possibly a new Monhegan species for me. But what I really think about when I look back on the day are little highlights that can make even the most ordinary bird linger in my memory long after the lists and tallies for the day are forgotten. Like the rufous feathers on the wing of the swamp sparrow. Or the yellow spectacles of the yellow-throated vireo. Or the bright green body of the Tennesee warbler that caught the sunlight at the tip of an apple tree. Or the bright white squadron of a line of gannets passing over the surf of Lobster Cove first thing in the morning...

Blackbird's pale eye set
in cocoa face--the beauty
of subtle colors.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27: Yellow-throated Warbler

A couple of days ago a birder I know reported a yellow-throated warbler down by the Ice Pond here on Monhegan. I didn't see it then, but today we happened to be in the right place at the right time. The grey drizzle did not dim the glow of this bright little bird, although in the Maine chill this Southern species must have been wishing it was someplace else. A black and grey streaked warbler with a vivd yellow throat, this species shows up every few years here on the island. The only one I've seen outside of Florida was here, five years ago, in a lilac bush about five feet from my face. A memorable birding moment. Today's sighting was equally memorable, with the striking bird right out in the open on a branch of a plum bush, surrounded by fat purple beach plums.

Stray Southern warbler
in rain, on island plum bush.
We all long for sun.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

September 26: Peregrines at Play

A chilly north wind is blowing through the island right now, making birding a bit harsh. For some reason, though, lots of goldfinches are flying around. And falcons. While typing this on the lawn of the Yew, half a dozen merlins have zipped past and two have landed at the tip of a spruce tree about 100 yards away from our little cocktail hour gathering. We've seen a few kestrels, as well. But the most fun was watching two peregrines soaring over Manana Island. They were joined at one point by as many as four ravens, which they chased without serious intent. A flock of goldfinches flew across the harbor at one point, were chased by a peregrine, and quickly flew back to safety. The speed at which the world's fastest animal plays is breathtaking; we watched transfixed for almost half an hour. The birds would soar, barely moving a feather, and then suddenly transfix on something and go after it, just for fun. Even after we stopped watching with full focus and walked up to the lighthouse, every now and then we'd look out to Manana and see one falcon still dipping and diving over the island horizon.

Despite the cold wind
we watch them for a long time,
free-wheeling falcons.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

September 25: Not Birding

Except for a couple of hours before my friend Diane arrived on the first boat, most of today I was not birding more than very casually. Instead, I reveled in girl time with Diane and Amy. After a long lunch al fresco at The Novelty, we hiked out to Burnt Head, sharing stories, admiring flowers, butterflies, and flickers, and laughing our heads off. As the surf pounded below us, we lounged on the rocks in the sun and just enjoyed being there together. Now I really feel like I'm on vacation. It was hard to wave goodbye to Diane as she left on the last boat on this still-perfect afternoon.

How can we not laugh?
Three women on Monhegan
in the sun, cliff's edge.

Friday, September 24, 2010

September 24: Anticipation

Last night at about 3 a.m., the full moon shone into my window bright enough to make it look like dawn was breaking. I woke up and, as often happens, could not fall back asleep. My periodic insomnia is always worse when I'm on a birding vacation. I start thinking about what I might see the next morning, hoping the wind shifted to carry in a fresh fall-out of warblers by dawn. I think about the birds I missed. I start to anticipate the morning--the early light on the harbor, mist rising off the meadow, flocks of small birds in the spruces... And I make myself more and more awake with the growing belief that today I will find a really cool bird or two.

About an hour later I got up and realized it was raining. When I came back to bed, I fell asleep with a weird feeling of relief, knowing that I wouldn't have to jump out of bed in an hour so as not to miss anything. When I did wake up, half an hour before the breakfast bell, I hit the trails, and almost immediately found a new species for this trip, a black-and-white warbler. Not an uncommon species usually, but elusive these past three days.

After breakfast, one of the first birds I found was a red-headed woodpecker--the first reported out here this season and the first I've seen in several years. In other words, a cool bird. And later today I was shown three black skimmers on Nigh Duck, the little island just outside Monhegan harbor--a first for me in Maine, let alone on Monhegan. I guess sometimes those middle-of-the-night feelings of anticipation are right on.

Awake with the moon
I anticipate the day
ahead--gifts of birds!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 23: Question Mark

In addition to all the avian activity on Monhegan this time of year, you can't help but notice the butterflies as well. The wild purple asters especially are graced with the colorful beauty of monarchs, red admirals, painted ladies, skippers, clouded sulfurs, cabbage whites, and my favorite, the question mark. It can be mesmerizing to focus closely on a butterfly as it flits among the flowers, then lands, its wings slowly opening and closing as it sucks nectar and then lifts off to find the next perfect bloom.

I found my first question mark of the trip today while scrounging for birds. When I pointed it out to a fellow birder, he remarked that the fringed edge of its wings are the same pale purple as the aster it was feeding upon. Most of the upper wings are an elaborate pattern of bright orange and burnt umber with brown spots, with "frilly" lavender edges. The underwings are pale and brownish, like a dried fall leaf, with a mark on the lower wing in the shape of a question mark.

Often I come across these graceful insects feeding on rotten apples--a striking contrast of what is lovely alongside what is not. Or rather, what is lovely drawing sustenance from what is not.
Question mark feeding
on rotten apples: beauty's
brevity on show?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22: Island Night

The chirp of crickets blends with the background roar of the surf, punctuated by the occasional moan of the foghorn and the intermittent chime of a bell buoy just offshore. Today is day one of my annual fall vacation on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. I'm sitting in the dark on the lawn of my inn, the Trailing Yew, admiring the patterns of the clouds backlit by a full moon--the first full moon of autumn--while behind me the lighthouse beam sweeps the meadow. Earlier I saw a bat fluttering in the twilight. Now birds are calling as they fly overheard, about to head out over open ocean to continue southward.

It's been a full day so far and this is really my first moment alone. A crowded boat left Port Clyde this morning on rough seas. While the deep swells didn't bother me, many on the boat did not fare well. My friend Amy met my boat, and from then on it was a wonderful swirl of catching up with old friends and meeting new ones--all while trying to see a few migrating birds. The birding is a bit quiet right now, but the birding social scene is hopping.

Now it's bedtime, so I can rise early tomorrow and hit the trails in earnest, looking for warblers, sparrows, and hawks, the avian highlights of the season. As Calvin from "Calvin and Hobbes" once put it, "The days are just packed."

Once by this full moon
I hiked with friends through night woods
to surf-churned Burnt Head.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September 21: Flocks of Flickers

On this eve of the Autumnal Equinox, fall is making its arrival felt. For the first time I noticed a few patches of red amid the green carpeting the Mount Megunticook ridge. Mornings are chilly. And migrating flickers are everywhere. I think I saw or heard one every time I went out the office door. I heard them while enjoying lunch on a friend's porch in the lovely late summer sun in Rockport. I saw their white-patched rumps bobbing into the bushes here and there as I ran errands and watched one eating berries from a bush at one stop. And to top it off this flicker-full day, a friend sent me a beautiful photo he'd recently taken of a flicker:
Photo by Karl Gerstenberger:
Derek Lovitch, a bird biologist based in Freeport, keeps track of migrating birds passing over Sandy Point, on Cousins Island in Yarmouth. He actually counts everything he sees each morning he's there. His previous high count of flickers on a single morning during fall migration was 105. This morning's total, during what Derek refers to as an "EPIC, Record-shattering Sandy Point Morning Flight": 1,092! Flickers made up the highest percentage of all the birds that flew over, with 334 cedar waxwings bringing up a distant second. So flickers are on the move en masse, and the falcons are right behind them... Can you feel that energy in the air?

Last day of summer.
Flocks of flickers flee the fall,
falcons on their tails.

Monday, September 20, 2010

September 20: On the Trail

Part of my day was spent tromping around various forested properties in Stockton Springs, Searsport, and Hope. At one stop, we hiked on an old logging road that now made a perfect trail through patches of dense deciduous forest mixed with stands of white pine that lent their strong fragrance to the crisp morning air. As we carefully stepped over a clump of blackberry bushes that were lying in disarray across the trail, my boss noted that a bear had probably made that mess while going after the berries. Further down the trail, I came across some scat filled with berry seeds that we agreed was that of either a bear or a large, berry-eating coyote. These were real woods. On the return walk, while paying attention to my footing, it seemed like every few yards a woolly bear caterpillar was curled up among the leaf litter. That time of year.

The clear blue sky, a few patches of early red maple leaves, and, once, a bald eagle soaring overhead made for some distraction from what was on the trail. But I was struck by how much could be seen by paying attention to what was right underfoot.

Already, red leaves
falling, animals thinking
of hibernation.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19: Merlin

In the King Arthur stories, Merlin the magician is the one who makes things happen. He sets the story in motion. In Weskeag Marsh, the merlin also sets things in motion--namely other birds, harassing them and generally creating chaos wherever it flies. It was quiet when I arrived at the marsh this morning around high tide, with just a handful of sandpipers shifting in the pannes and a line-up of snowy egrets in the distance. But friends I met there had earlier watched a peregrine falcon carry off a yellowlegs--a rather large sandpiper--and had also seen a merlin, a smaller falcon, zip through.

So when I set out onto the flooded, mucky path winding through the marsh grass between the pannes and canals, I kept an eye out. Fairly quickly I spotted the peregrine on a big dead tree that seems to be the favorite perch of peregrines, perhaps resting after digesting its big meal. Downriver a kingfisher perched on the right side of a duck blind, an array of snowy egrets in the water nearby. As I focused on my footing, trying to get further out into the marsh in hopes of seeing more birds, I heard the kingfisher's rattling call. Looking up, I noticed that the bird perched on the right side of the duck blind was now a small brown falcon. The kingfisher was now perched on the left side of the blind. The merlin must have decided it wanted that side and chased off the kingfisher, which held its ground enough to at least remain on the blind. They stayed in that detente arrangement for several minutes as I made my way further into the marsh.

Later I happened to notice that the kingfisher had left the blind for a fence post. A few posts away sat the merlin. I wondered if it had moved over there just to bug the kingfisher. Merlins are like that. For a bird of prey, it's small, about the size of a kingfisher, actually, but fierce beyond its size. A merlin will make a pass at just about anything--a gull, an eagle, a peregrine. It knows no fear, and its speed and size make it a difficult target for retaliation. At one point the peregrine left the snag and gave chase to something in the marsh, and the merlin somehow got involved. It was difficult to say which bird was chasing which, but the peregrine came up with nothing and the merlin went back to a fence post.

It remained there until I had left the marsh. Before I got in my car, I scanned one more time. And there was the merlin, darting over the marsh. A couple of crows noticed, as well, and loudly took up chase. The birds disappeared into the pines bordering the marsh. When they emerged, it looked like the merlin had turned the tables and was chasing the crows. They went around and around in the trees until the feisty merlin flew off to harass something else.

Merlin chasing crows
never doubts himself. For him
size doesn't matter.

Interested in learning a little more about merlins? Check out this recent post on merlins (with beautiful accompanying photos) by my birder friend Bryan Pfeiffer, who is currently out on Monhegan.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

September 18: Nocturne

Last night the Maine Birding list-serv posted several reports that a good nocturnal migration flight was in progress, so at about midnight I went outside to listen. There's just something really cool about hearing those high-pitched flight calls overhead in the darkness, knowing that there are clouds of birds up there making their way south. Migration restlessness, called zugunruhe--that undeniable, internal impulse to move south--pushes them onward. Invisible in the night, birds fly in fast flocks, trying to make as much distance as they can while winds are low and predators are few. These flocks can be so big that they show up on radar maps, big moving blobs on the screen referred to as "angels."

Some birders are so good they can identify what's up there just by hearing the birds' nocturnal call notes, which are often quite different from the sounds those birds make during the day. It is thought that they make these calls to keep the flock together, a way of saying, "I'm still here" to the other birds around them. Though I can't help but wonder if there isn't a little bit of uncontainable excitement mixed in, too: "Yay! We're all together and heading south again!"

I didn't hear more than a couple of chips from my yard because the rush of the river was so loud. But it was a beautiful night just to sit on the back step and enjoy the calm. The setting, waxing moon shone through the trees brighter than headlights. Jupiter too was large and bright, and with my binoculars I could pick out what I think were a few of its moons. The constellation Cassiopeia poised just above Jupiter, over my roof. I kept expecting to see a cat or a skunk wander through the yard. I wondered what I would hear or see if I threw down a tarp and spent the night in my sleeping bag back there. But I didn't. Eventually I went back inside where the lights were on, and the only thing visible in the dark windows was my own reflection. But as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, I imagined the soft wingbeats of angels steadily passing over the house all night long.

Angels fly southward
tonight, passing overhead.
Big moon lights the way.

Friday, September 17, 2010

September 17: Cup of Tea

When I was 14, my grandparents took me on a trip to Scotland, home country of my grandmother's parents. We traveled around northern Scotland, spending a week on the Isle of Skye and two weeks making our way across the top of the country and down the eastern shore to Aberdeen (my great-grandparents' home city) and eventually Edinburgh. Given my age, I wasn't able to partake of Scottish ales or whiskey, so I think I missed out on the better aspects of Scottish cuisine. All I remember of the food was that the bed and breakfasts we stayed in often served tomatoes alongside the toast and eggs for breakfast, which I found kind of weird. And tea... I well remember tea.

Times change and I haven't been back since, so this may not hold true anymore, but 30 years ago tea time remained a very strong tradition. And I loved it. We quickly learned that you could judge a B and B by the quality of its tea offerings. The tea itself was always fine--even in early summer, there's nothing more bracing than a strong cup of tea after a day of driving miles of winding, sheep-cluttered country roads and tramping about ruined castles. But it was the sweets that I remember best. A good B and B would offer up several kinds of cookies, frosted petit fours, little candies from the local confectioner's, or even homemade scones with jam. A lesser place would give you Walker's shortbread--the kind offered for sale at all the tourist shops--right out of the tin. But even that was good. It seemed so civilized and comforting, to pause and take that time to all sit together for a little meal, of sorts, that would recharge you enough to make it through the rest of the day. And the days were long--higher latitudes near Summer Solstice meant that it stayed light until well past 10 p.m. So that tea helped.

Storm clouds are scudding over today, dragging a chilly breeze along with them. I'm sipping a mug of green tea with honey to warm my insides and keep me going for a few more hours at the end of a long work week, wishing I had a little treat to enjoy with my tea. I thought I had some chocolate stashed away in my desk, but no such luck--so I only have my distant memories of those long-ago Scottish tea treats to sustain me.

Warm memories, tea--
the small things that sustain us
as we live our lives.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 16: Safe

On my short drive into town after work this evening, a squirrel dashed across the street just ahead of the tires on an oncoming truck. Although my car was some distance away when I observed this, I still instinctively braked as I watched the sequence of events unfold--sort of bracing myself for the possibility of a small disaster that never happened. On my way back home from the library, a chipmunk, tail held high, made its mad dash from one side of the street to the other. Safe, thankfully, and nowhere near my car.

I've noticed more than the usual amount of road-kill the past few weeks--squirrels, mostly, and some raccoons and skunks. I wonder if it's because the summer's young are grown and dispersing from their home territories, so more animals than usual (and more naive animals) are wandering around,  unknowingly putting themselves in front of our cars. In any case, it's always a relief to witness a safe crossing--one less life lost in a day.

Without knowing it
we too probably miss death
by seconds some days.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15: White Birches

Sometimes some ordinary thing catches my eye and suddenly stands out like it never did before. This evening as I left the office, grey rain clouds loomed behind the trees. But when I looked up to assess the likelihood of rain, I was instantly struck with the whiteness of the birch trunks before me. A small clump of White Birches loomed over the driveway against a dull backdrop of storm clouds. Something about the light, or maybe the contrast with the dirty-looking sky, made the birchbark glow with a pure white you don't normally see in nature. Most of the birches around the office and my house are Grey Birches, which are skinnier, more scraggly, and with less "clean" bark. These tall, healthy White Birches looked as if they were wrapped with paper, they were that white. Even my allergy-hazed eyes, through which I've been squinting at my computer screen all day with some difficulty, could register their very visible beauty. What, besides woodpeckers, might scribble on that paper?

Almost a mirage--
such straight, white birches glowing
against dark storm clouds.

I feel the impulse
to get out my crayons and
color that white bark.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

September 14: Out There

There's a great, recent New Yorker blog post by Meredith Blake about a guy, John Morse, who puts up "roadside haiku" meant to look like those annoying signs you see posted at city intersections offering "get rich quick" job schemes and easy weight loss programs. Here's an example that's right on--subversive street art yet also street smart:

Build personal wealth
in the comfort of your home
Read to your children

Haiku must be in the air, because then a friend on Facebook posted this as his status yesterday:

Haikus are easy
but sometimes they don't make sense

Along those lines, I've saved for years a full-page Roz Chast cartoon from the New Yorker entitled "Police Log from Suburbia Heights in Haiku Form." My favorite is Monday's entry:

Group of youths clustered
In front of Dunkin' Donuts.
Asked to leave and did.

Hard to follow what I've shared here with my own haiku, but here it is:

Some days are just packed
with moments of poetry.
Today: not so much.

Monday, September 13, 2010

September 13: Buddhist Chipmunk

My mother mentioned that a chipmunk liked to perch atop one of the stone statues of Buddha in her lawn. This was funny enough to imagine, but when we pulled into the driveway to drop her off, sure enough, there it was: a chipmunk on Buddha's head. Pesky as they are, chipmunks are endearing little rodents. This particular chipmunk was clearly familiar with my mother's ways, as it didn't budge from Buddha's head when she approached. Buddha's serene expression also remained unmoved. One might wonder if it's a spiritual chipmunk, at one everything, startled by nothing. Or perhaps the height of the statue makes for a good vantage point. Do chipmunks like a view? Curled atop Buddha, the chipmunk remained calm until we got within a couple of feet of it. Then it darted up into the rain gutter. When I tapped on the gutter, the chipmunk let forth a series of high-pitched noises that could only be considered invectives. It was clearly upset that we had interrupted its daily commune with higher powers.

On Buddha's stone head
chipmunk exudes compassion
for all seed-bearers.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 12: Football Season

The time of year when the start of football season overlaps with the end of baseball season is often a challenge, as we find ourselves getting distracted from the Red Sox playoff run by the Patriots' return to action. But this year it's a bit different, with the Red Sox having no chance at the playoffs. And Tom Brady is back. So really not much of a toss-up over which gets my attention.

Unfortunately I wasn't near a tv until half-time for the opening season game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. I got to see the score: 24 - 3 Patriots. And then I got to see the first play of the 3rd quarter before I had to go back to my table at the restaurant. If I had to see one play, it was a good one. Brandon Tate handily ran in a punt return for a touchdown. It was fist-pumping awesome. Those who remember George Carlin's classic monologue on baseball versus football can understand the mood shift this new sport season initiates. After summer's slow pastorale on the baseball diamond, we now get the rough-and-tumble action of football.

And to keep things interesting, this weekend also features the championship matches of the US Open for tennis. Last night we watched Kim Clijsters easily win the women's final; thanks to rain in New York, tomorrow night we'll get to root for Nadal in the men's final. I'm an unabashed sports fan, I guess--it's (almost) all good. This jumble of sports keeps me energized. Even yesterday's road race that the Land Trust hosted in Belfast was a small thrill for me to observe, because it's a sport that I used to be fairly good at myself. Also, I enjoy a sport in which women have a good shot at doing as well as men. And, of course, it's always fun to be able to cheer on friends who are competing at something. We're just like that.

Slow fade of baseball,
football season rushes in.
We're still so tribal.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11: Bounty

A friend spent today grinding, juicing, and otherwise preparing for long-term storage 122 pounds of tomatoes. When she and her husband came by to pick us up for dinner, she brought in a big basket laden with vegetables, including tomatoes looking like red pumpkins, beets, carrots, and a torpedo onion. This was a good year for gardens, and they're now reaping the harvest. I've also enjoyed several of their musk melons and watermelons this summer. And my freezer is still well stocked with strawberries picked several months back.

We went to dinner at a new little Asian restaurant in town, Long Grain, where I had exquisite steamed dumplings filled with a perfect combination of minced pork, shrimp, and seaweed. Despite the exotic ethnicity of the cuisine, the menu says they use produce from local farms whenever they can. After dinner, we got Round Top ice cream cones down the street. Thinking about all this locally grown and/or produced food makes me feel so grateful that not only do I not need to worry about where my next meal is coming from, but odds are it's going to be a good one. I am aware that for many, many people in this world that is not the case--which makes me feel that I should take care to especially enjoy that which I could so easily take for granted: good food and gifts from a friend.

Is it wrong to find
such comfort in tomatoes
on this tragic day?

Friday, September 10, 2010

September 10: Chill

Although I went to bed last night in my full-length pajama bottoms and fleece pajama top, I was freezing this morning when I woke up. My cat was curled close against me; it was hard to say who was huddling tighter against whom for warmth. For the first time in months, my husband had closed the bedroom window. As I dressed for work, I put on a wool sweater. For the first time in months, I made a cup of hot tea. Crows swirled around in the brisk breeze, black silhouettes against a dour white and grey sky. The maple tree outside my office window, the one that always turns a few weeks ahead of the other trees, already shows a few reddened leaves, as if red-faced in this chill. I'm sure we'll have more warm days ahead--we usually enjoy a lovely Indian summer--but these first ones in which we feel the season's shift breathing cool air down our necks, these can be a challenge.

Closed bedroom window
keeps out cold but mutes birdsong--
slow reveal of fall.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

September 9: Titmouse Moment

Although I definitely play fast and loose with haiku as a form in my daily postings, their traditional role is to capture a moment. Amid a stressful day of challenging work, aggravating tasks, a frustrating meeting, and an ever-growing to-do list, there was one moment that made me pause and smile: while I was eating my lunch (at my desk), a titmouse landed on my window feeder, looked in with his beady black eyes, "dee dee'ed" really loudly, grabbed a seed, and flew off. I love those cheeky little birds. So the take-away message: if you have a job that raises your blood pressure, think about putting up a few feeders. Taking a little time to focus on the birds each day really helps. Sometimes those moments are the only thing about my work day that seems to hold any poetry whatsoever.

Thanks to a titmouse,
for a few moments my thoughts
left my desk, took wing.

Those who enjoy poetry and titmice might get a kick out of former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins' poem "Influence," in which he compares poet Marianne Moore to a titmouse (and Robert Penn Warren to a mourning dove). The first time I read it I was in tears. Read it and you'll understand. I think.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September 8: Asteroids

I was kind of thrilled to read on this morning about our close encounter with two asteroids today. Apparently, however, it happens all the time. Our astronomers just haven't been paying close enough attention.

David Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near Earth Program (by which "near Earth" seems to be defined as within 28 million miles of our planet), says: 
"We have only recently appreciated how many of these objects are in near Earth's space and [it's] best that we keep track of them and find them," he said. "I think this is Mother Nature's way of firing a shot over the bow and warning Earth-based astronomers that we have a lot of work to do." Although his metaphor seems a bit over the top--I just can't imagine Mother Nature (a.k.a. the solar system) cares all that much about how alert astronomers are on any planet--I find his perspective interesting. The space around Earth really is closer than we imagined to the old video game Asteroids, with shards and fragments of cosmic bits buzzing by us all the time. (Also, the Near Earth Program sounds like something that would be featured in an apocalyptic movie in which a giant asteroid is hurtling toward earth and only one scientist can save us all from certain doom... how come I learn about these cool-sounding jobs when it's too late to jump on a new career track?)

The two small chunks of space matter passed or were going to pass closer to Earth than the moon. The disappointing fact was that they're so small we couldn't see them without a decent telescope. They're so small, in fact, that their nearness won't have any discernible effect on us at all, unlike the moon's regular tugging of the tides and, some believe, our moods. One of the asteroids is about the size of our shed out back, the other, about the size of our house (which is described as a bungalow, so we're talking pretty darn small). For some reason, images from James and the Giant Peach are coming to mind...

Cosmic particles
unseen but passing close by--
can you feel their tug?

Bonus haiku, in the style of classic romantic Japanese poetry:

Is it the asteroid
passing close or is it you
tugging my heartstrings?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

September 7: Pruning

Funny how once Labor Day passes, it seems like the end of summer is nigh. Really, we've got two more weeks to go, but already there's a nip in the night air and fallen leaves rustle in the yard. Perhaps that's why I was in clean up mode after work today. While my husband gave the back yard its last short trim of the summer--preparing it for autumn's carpet of leaves--I pruned the spirea, quince, and yew shrubs. During this lush summer they'd grown completely out of control, wild limbs blocking the pathway to the back door, reaching toward my car. Then I washed my car and weeded the driveway. For some reason it seems important to neaten everything up before it's covered with a swirling cascade of birch, maple, beech, and ash leaves. The impulse seems seasonally motivated, akin to stacking firewood or canning vegetables. Getting ready.

Pruning shrubs, weeding--
trimming back summer's excess.
Change is on the way.

Monday, September 6, 2010

September 6: Bold Coast

The Bold Coast Trails in Cutler offer some of the most beautiful coastal hiking I've ever experienced, especially on a cool but sunny day like today. We hiked through several miles of mossy spruce forest over bog bridges and tree roots as kinglets flitted in the treetops overhead. The trail follows the ocean's edge for several miles, as well, featuring one vista after another of dramatic rocky bluffs with crashing surf below, lobster boats at work on a sparkling sea, gulls and eiders bobbing offshore, and on the far horizon, the hazy length of Grand Manan Island.

At one point we crossed a small stream draining into a pebbly cove, and in a little side pool amid the rocks, I spied a frog. Hardly what I was expecting for wildlife so close to the shore. The frog was bright green with black spots, a leopard frog. My husband tells me they like wet fields, and we had crossed one earlier, but this palm-sized amphibian still seemed a bit out of its element.

We hiked almost six miles, and were a bit surprised to see the parking lot full upon our return. Clearly we weren't the only ones to think that this quiet, wild place in the middle of nowhere was the place to be on this holiday.

Why here, leopard frog?
Were you too drawn by sea's thrum,
these water-worn stones?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

September 5: Spruces

This obviously isn't the only major distinction, but compared to Midcoast Maine, Down East Maine is very boreal. Spruce and fir are the dominant trees on the landscape, which is also marked by quite a few ancient peat bogs and blueberry barrens. A spruce forest has a different feel to it--denser, darker, impenetrable, with thick beds of moss carpeting the forest floor--wilder. It's a forest in which you can imagine gnomes or elves living. Or, if you're a birder, Bruce.

Bruce the spruce grouse is a regular on the Boot Cove Trail in Cutler.  A friend who's a professional bird guide regularly takes clients there for their lifer spruce grouse, a boreal forest specialty species. He told us this morning, when my husband and I ran into him and his wife while watching the hundreds of shorebirds at the South Lubec Sand Bar, that he has often seen Bruce within the first tenth of a mile down the trail, once even in the parking lot. Bruce apparently has a small territory, which he patrols carefully. The key was to get there first thing in the morning, before people walking dogs there had spooked Bruce further back into the trees.

So of course we were driving by the trail head just before sunset, after more great birding at Quoddy Head State Park, and decided to give it a shot anyway. We've both already seen a spruce grouse, so had no life list "must see" anxiety. This was just on a whim. With the sun low in the sky, the woods were dark and a bit spooky. In the distance we could hear the roar of waves and a ghostly-sounding fog horn that sounded like someone blowing across the top of a giant bottle. We went silently, hoping to catch Bruce foraging one last time before roosting for the night. We startled a garter snake. A red squirrel scolded us. In these primeval woods, the grouse's appearance really seemed possible-- we knew he had to be there somewhere, probably watching us from within a tangled spruce thicket.

Then a loud family with kids came up the trail, and we knew we weren't going to get lucky this time. We sat on a bench overlooking a bog as the sun dropped behind the pointed spruce horizon, and then made our way back to the car, wishing Bruce a good night as we left his woods behind.

Grouse territory--
we can feel his spirit here
though we don't see him.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

September 4: After the Storm

Swaths of heavy rain, a remnant of Hurricane Earl, passed through last night and early this morning. Torrents were streaming down the street, and now the river is running high and brown. You could probably kayak down to the next dam right now without bottoming out. Wet and bedraggled goldfinches are hanging off the sodden thistle feeder as if they had just been waiting for the rain to let up. The sounds of rain, a rising wind in the leaves, and the rushing river blend to fill the air with a living, breathing swoosh, a constant backdrop as we go about our usual morning ablutions, safe and dry here inside the house.

Ash tree sways, dripping,
above the swollen river:
hurricane season.

Friday, September 3, 2010

September 3: Four Woodpeckers

This morning when I got out of bed I looked out the back window to see why the blue jays were making such a ruckus. On the lawn were dispersed three robins, a squirrel, and a flicker. The flicker was almost underneath the window, and my appearance there caused him to look up. Flickers often "graze" on lawns for ants and other lawn-loving grubs, but they aren't usually right under my window. So I got a good, albeit brief, look at his smooth brown belly covered with black spots, the black band across his breast, and the little black "mustache" pattern on his face that told me he was a male. Then he flew off into the trees, flashing his characteristic white rump. The robins and squirrel hung out for a while longer, and a downy woodpecker whinnied from the trees over our shed.

Woodpeckers have been especially verbal today. When I got to work, a pileated woodpecker was calling loudly and repeatedly from somewhere nearby. Yesterday afternoon he made so much noise that I finally went outside and spotted him preening in a birch tree above my co-worker's truck. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America describes the sound as "a loud wuck note or series of notes, given all year." That hardly conveys the crazy cackle that resonates throughout the neighborhood when a pileated woodpecker feels like making some noise. In addition to his wuck-ing, I also heard another flicker and a hairy woodpecker--a total of four woodpecker species in one day without even going outside. I may be a lazy birder during my work week, but I can't complain about the birds I do manage to see or hear.

Posing on my lawn,
flicker shows his true colors.
Then--white rump flashing.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

September 2: Still Life with Crows, Squirrel, and Beach Ball

This morning a crow out back made a sort of throaty chuckling noise, causing me to look out the window. What I saw made me chuckle, too: on the green tableau of my neighbor's back yard were arranged four crows, a grey squirrel... and a beach ball. The crow that had called seemed to be addressing itself to the squirrel, which was on the alert but not backing down. All five creatures appeared to be grazing together without incident, in fact, perhaps poking around for the first fall of green acorns. And the beach ball? Well, it wasn't doing anything. But if I were a children's book author, I think I'd have my next story there somewhere.

An odd arrangement:
four crows, squirrel, and beach ball.
Fun interrupted?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September 1: Water Play

It was so hot today that they let school out early. Only in Maine! My neighbors across the street coped with the day's heat by laying out a tarp on a small hill in their back yard and running the hose to create a water slide of sorts. The four little boys, tanned and tow-headed from a summer spent on the beach and running around outside, happily slid down the wet tarp over and over. The youngest child, a little girl still young enough to play outside with no clothes on, wanted to join in. But soon she was crying. I looked over with some concern, but her mother explained--as she carried off the wet, naked baby--that the girl had slid too fast down the tarp and it scared her. By next summer she'll be old enough to join her brothers without tears, I'm sure.

I remember the first time I ever realized that a girl wasn't supposed to walk around without a shirt on. It was a hot summer day like this one, and I was seven years old. Without even thinking about it, I went outside to play with just shorts on. At some point, one of my friend's mother told me that I needed to put a shirt on because I was a girl. It made no sense to me, because my chest didn't look any different from a boy's chest. But, self-conscious, I went home and changed my clothes. And never went topless again. Except for the occasional skinny-dipping indulgence, which would have felt really nice on a day like this.

A simple cool-down:
four tan little boys, a tarp,
a hose, a back yard.