Sunday, November 28, 2010

November 28: Harp Seal

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, my husband and I were able to observe a harp seal in Camden Harbor this afternoon. He read a news story on Village Soup about a harp seal that had been photographed on the kayak floats in Camden Harbor on Thanksgiving. Then he saw on Facebook that a friend of ours had seen it chasing fish in the harbor this afternoon. So we decided to go try and see it.

The sun was just setting as we got to the public landing, casting a pink glow on the horizon behind Curtis Island. A lone loon drifted past, as we wandered down the pier to the kayak floats. And there was the seal--fat, happy, stretching itself on one of the floats. It seemed alert to the two couples watching it, but not alarmed. Several times it flapped its back feet, revealing that what looks like its tail is really two big feet with a small tail in between. It waved a front foot at us. It seemed to be showing off in a lazy, seal kind of way. Only when the church clock tolled four did it seem at all startled, tilting its pale face toward the sound, then relaxing again. We decided this big reclining creature would look right at home on a couch watching football.

A guy walking past told us it had been hanging out in the harbor for a week and a half. He said the Marine Resources people had checked it out and given it a clean bill of health. What it's doing this far south is a mystery, but a harp seal has been seen here before. Maybe this is the same one, back for another little vacation in warmer waters.

On the walk back along the pier to our car, we ran into a friend working on his fishing boat. As we chatted, the Mount Battie star lit up for the night, a magical moment.

Amid wrapped schooners,
harp seal, loon, lone fisherman.
Chilled couple watching.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

November 23: What Is That Crow Up To?

To be grammatically correct, I guess I should have said, Up to What Is That Crow?

I'm home sick, and today's source of entertainment is my back yard, where a pair of squirrels assiduously combs the carpet of wet leaves for food. A couple of nights ago I tossed a full bag of popcorn out there, next to the stump where I left them the (now-eaten) Halloween pumpkin, and I think they're still looking for more. Or perhaps they cached some and are now trying to find it again.

Just now, as the squirrels were burrowing through leaves in that vicinity, a crow landed on the lawn and cawed at the squirrels, who appeared a bit startled and backed away. It then hopped up onto a branch directly above where I had strewn the popcorn, cawed a few more times, grabbed something from what looks like a little hollow in a nearby tree trunk, and flew off. Another crow spotted it and chased it down river. As I type, I still see the two of them in the morning mist, chasing one another among the bleak tree trunks. I wish this window faced the couch, where I've been holed up for two days, so I could enjoy the crows and squirrels from a recumbent position. Spending a day trying to figure out what crows are up to seems far superior to watching tv or reading a book.

Watching crows' antics,
trying to get in their heads,
I forget I'm sick.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

November 13: Emma's World

My almost 17-year-old cat Emma, while still going strong in many ways, has serious arthritis in her hindquarters which hampers her movements and makes her walk with a sort of sideways-slipping sway. Because she spends a lot of time lying around with her hind legs sprawled uselessly behind her, the other day my mother jokingly called her "Christina's World" after the famous Andrew Wyeth painting.

So Emma's activities today were cause for pleasure. While she's an indoor cat on principle, now that she's old and slow (though not as slow as you'd think), I sometimes let her hang out in the back yard with me for short, supervised outings. On this beautiful Indian summer afternoon, I set up a tv tray and chair so I could sit in the sun on the back porch and read over the proofs of my husband's second novel. Emma came out with me and explored the leafy back yard under my watchful eye. She tromped around in the leaves for quite a while, sniffing everything, undaunted by her awkward gait. She was more active than I've seen her in a long time. She even chased a twig I dragged past her.
Later, after some lunch inside, we went back out to the porch to take full advantage of this weather. She curled up tightly on my lap and napped while I read the latest New Yorker and drank a hot mug of chai latte. The river, dark and riffled, rushed past. Piles of leaves skittered and shifted. Chickadees flitted by on their way to the bird feeder. At one point Emma awoke and watched with interest as a neighbor's cat blithely walked through the yard and right past us, then she curled back up under my arm for more sleep. I held her in a close embrace, feeling keenly in those moments the brevity of the time we have left together. 

Emma and I have been together since before I met my husband. Childless, I have doted on this strange and often ornery little creature for 16 years. So I was especially grateful for us to be able to share these few hours together, with both of us simply enjoying the moment and each other's company, recharged by the late autumn sunlight.

Old cat, piles of leaves,
last warm days of November--
we share the sunlight.

PS: As I wrote this entry at my desk, Emma came over and indicated she wanted to get into my lap. After I boosted her up, I thought she'd curl up and sleep as usual, but instead she sat upright on my knees, alertly watching the screen the whole time I was typing. I told her I was writing about her, and I like to fool myself into thinking she understood.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November 10: Forest

The devastation caused by a recent rain and wind storm became more apparent to me today when I was walking a conservation property in Lincolnville. As the landowner and I walked through one dense patch of mixed cedar and spruce forest, we came upon an ancient pine that had splintered about four feet up the trunk and toppled to the ground. This towering tree, with no apparent rot, boughs still green, had come crashing down in the storm, taking several neighboring cedars with it. We estimated the pine to be well over 100 years old. And there it lay in a giant tangle, felled by the wind.

Elsewhere in the forest we found maybe half a dozen other trees downed by the storm. Some were spruces,  their shallow root systems made all the more obvious when upended, just a flat circle of earth perpendicular to the forest floor. In the small stands of trees, the crowded trunks provide support for one another. But when one falls, it takes others down with it, a row of giant timber dominoes. Or if one happens to fall alone, it leaves the trees within the circle more vulnerable to the next big storm.

In an opening amid the trees, growing from a forest floor carpeted thick with rain-moist moss, we admired clusters of baby spruce trees, the next generation. It occurred to us that we were witnessing the entire cycle of life in this patch of woods: new trees reaching for the light, mature trees clustered around them, some dead trees still standing, fretted with woodpecker holes and studded with bracket fungi, the newly fallen trees piled in messy heaps, and the older deadfall melting back into the earth from which it came, blanketed with moss, ferns, mushrooms, forest duff, leaf litter. A rich tapestry of organic matter, the stuff of life and death.

Wind's toy, this old pine,
whose death enriches the soil,
this moss, these seedlings.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

November 7: Cattle Egret

I rode the morning ferry out to the island of Vinalhaven to spend part of the day birding with a friend who lives there. A naturalist by profession, Kirk knows where to find the birds, and despite the rather bleak, chilly, and eventually rainy day, we had a good time looking. I've gotten out birding so infrequently lately that being able to spend a concentrated amount of time watching any avian life is welcome. So to be shown  a bird I hadn't previously seen in Maine within ten minutes of getting off the ferry was bonus.

Cattle egrets are a small white heron generally seen well south of Maine. Until today, the only ones I'd seen were in Florida and North Carolina. How this one ended up on an island off the Maine coast is one of those mysteries of migration. As I disembarked, I ran into one of the ferry captains who is also a birder--a birder who particularly enjoys chasing rarities. When I explained that I was out there so Kirk could show me a cattle egret, he complained, "Kirk never tells me anything!" An island resident had recently described to him seeing a strange bird, like an "all-white gull with a big yellow bill." It suddenly dawned on him that she'd been describing the cattle egret. He'd have to try to see it on a future trip.

Kirk and I headed off through town to "The Ballfield," where he'd photographed the bird not an hour earlier right next to his car. A woman driving past stopped to tell us that she had recently seen the egret following Wizard. Turns out Wizard is her horse. That made sense to Kirk, because the bird had first been spotted on Greens Island following a small flock of sheep. They got their name because they follow livestock, eating the insects such animals attract. So we went off to see Wizard. Before we got there, however, we spotted the egret hunched over in the middle of a lawn. Kirk set up his scope and we got great looks at this southern visitor.

We were soon joined by a neighbor who knew Kirk and who may or may not have been slightly inebriated. Even though we were clearly already watching the egret, he wanted to be sure we saw the bird, gesticulating wildly at it. "I knew you'd want to see it, because I know you like birds and sh*t," he declared. He had seen the egret earlier standing in a ditch full of minnows, eating. "It looked to me like a f**king big white sandpiper!" he said excitedly. "Is this rare? Because I've never seen a bird like this here before." Kirk assured him that it was very unusual.

You'd think that the rest of the day's birding would have been anticlimactic after that. But although I didn't pick up any more new Maine species, every stop had its highlights. At State Beach, a big flock of pale and lovely snow buntings flew back and forth above the pebbly shore. Horned larks hung out in the road with a single late-migrating semipalmated plover. A great blue heron croaked loudly as it flew in to land on the opposite shore. At Folly Pond, we spotted eight eagles, including a pair of adults perched side by side on a spruce bough, and a couple of brightly plumaged male wood ducks drifted past with a pied-billed grebe. At a culvert called The Boondoggle, a lone yellowlegs stood knee-deep in what must have been freezing cold water while hooded mergansers drifted and bobbed. The Basin offered up hosts of Canada geese and several more duck species.

Even the ferry ride home was not without adventure. My ferry captain friend invited me to ride back to Rockland up on the bridge, which offered great views of flocks of Bonaparte's gulls, a zillion more loons, big rafts of eiders, some surf scoters, and one gannet. He recounted the day last summer when he'd seen an albatross fly across the bow. The passage across the bay was a rough one, with swells rocking the ferry hard enough to knock over a chair at one point. The spray of whitecaps corrugated the surface of the sea. Thanks to turning back the clocks last night, twilight (and a cold rain) were settling in over Rockland Harbor as we pulled into the ferry slip. As we got ready to unload, a seal popped its head out of the water just off the port side, giving us all a long look as if wondering what we were doing out in this weather. Cattle egret, I wanted to tell the seal. And eiders, mergansers, and crossbills. I don't think it would have understood.

Brisk island wind, rain.
Egret and I share a look,
both visitors here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

November 4: Flying Leaves

And the season starts to shut down. Yesterday morning I woke to the first heavy frost, rime on the lawn and a carapace of white lingering like snow on the neighbors' roof. I had to scrape my car windows for the first time since last winter. This morning before the rains began, the slopes of Ragged Mountain, where I was walking, were burnished deep bronze, the russet of dying embers, just one tone removed from dead brown. Birch bark shone starkly amid branches bared to the wind. Crisp oak leaves leapt through the air like small birds, skipping on unseen eddies and currents in the sky. Small birds, juncos, scattered amid the dry leaves. Things were aswirl in the calm before the storm. So the appearance of two ravens, hoarsely cawing and dipping amid the loose leaves, fit the day's mood. They flew swiftly overhead as if whipped by the wind, but they knew exactly where they were going.

Leaves skitter like birds,
birds scatter like leaves. Two black
ravens ride the wind.