Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August 31:Three Woodpeckers

On my way to work this morning, I spotted a pair of pileated woodpeckers flying to a tree in the neighbor's yard. They landed on opposite sides of the trunk simultaneously, one slightly above the other.  Pileated woodpeckers have a strong, year-round pair bond, and I smiled to see them, thinking that perhaps they were re-bonding after finally having kicked out this summer's youngs.

When I got out of my car at work, I heard a pileated woodpecker calling from one of the trees nearby. My office is in the same neighborhood as my house. The woodpecker I heard couldn't have been one of the pair I just saw, and yet it would undoubtedly be in their territory--pileated woodpeckers have large territories of 200 acres or more. I wondered if perhaps it was a youngster, on its own but not ready yet to wander too far from its nesting site.

Periodically throughout the day I heard what was probably this same woodpecker calling--that crazy, Woody Woodpecker laugh. I couldn't help but think that it was yelling because it was annoyed at being ignored by its parents, who were out on a day's date at the other end of the neighborhood.

Woodpecker couple:
strengthening their pair bond now
that the young have fledged.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 30: Mountain Ash

Lately I've been noticing mountain ash trees, both wild and ornamental, as their clusters of berries have reddened (or orange-ed) and become more obvious. Not only are mountain ash--or rowan--trees attractive, but their berries  are a big source of food for wintering birds. When I see a tree full of rowan fruits, I see a stash of future bird food just waiting for that hungry flock of waxwings or robins to descend.

A few of our neighbors have mountain ash trees in their yard. In Celtic folklore, rowan trees carry protective powers, a good thing to have at the entrance of your home. Native Americans also put the tree, which is not related to the "regular" ash tree, to good use for medicinal purposes--the berries are apparently purgative and help ease digestive tract disorders, among other things. But don't eat them unless you know what you're doing. Or unless you're a bird.

Before the leaves turn,
orange rowan fruits ripen,
ready for winter.

Monday, August 29, 2011

August 29: Last Bird in the Woods

After work I went for a trail run on Ragged Mountain, starting at the Snow Bowl. It's been a while since I've done a trail run. My lungs weren't quite up to the first stage, following the trail partway up the mountain before turning south into the woods. But once I could catch my breath, I settled in to enjoy the softness of the damp forest floor beneath my feet, the familiar earthy smells of leaf litter, mud, and moss, the punctuation marks of mushrooms after the weekend's rain, and the rocks and roots forcing me to pay attention to where I placed each foot. The recent storm had left a lot of branches strewn across the trail, as well, including one large, nut-laden beech branch.

It was only 6:00 pm but the woods were already darkening when I set out. The sun has begun to set noticeably sooner these days, with just a few days left in August. I couldn't tell if my few stumbles on my return run (it was an up/out-and-back/down route) were a result of not being able to see the shadowy trail so well or my general tiredness from bouncing off bumps and hillocks. The "come here" whistle of a pewee beckoned me onward. That was the only bird I heard so late in the day. But running that late was well worth it if just to see, as I reached the bottom of the mountain again, Bald Mountain green and glowing in the last sunlight, a lush backdrop for a field full of young soccer players.

Near the end of my run I also startled a woodchuck traversing across the ski slope. It paused to watch me for a moment, then bounded with surprising speed into the woods. Maybe instead of pretending I'm a deer or a wild cat on my trail runs, I should be emulating a woodchuck instead.

Pewee's low, clear call
summons me out of the woods
just before sunset.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

August 28: Tropical Storm Warning

The wind's picking up, although the rain has diminished. We've just gotten an actual Tropical Storm Warning alert for Camden, so presumably the trees will be swaying with even more energy before the night is over. Actually, it's still only Sunday afternoon. Full daylight. But I figured I should post before things get worse in case we lose power later. While it's slowed and been downgraded from a hurricane, Irene is still one monster storm, the spiral of clouds on the radar map covering hundreds of miles. Amazing what Mother Nature can churn up, with a little added boost from global warming.

The storm really does feel tropical, too. The air is heavy, moisture-laden, warm, swept up from the Caribbean and carried here by the swirling forces of nature. Birders I know have been hitting the coast, hoping to find that Irene's brought along some tropical birds, as well. One birder friend hopes for magnificent frigatebird and brown pelican, perhaps some unusual southern terns (scroll to the very bottom of this blog post to see all his predictions). So far reports of black and Forster's terns are coming in from southern Maine, and oystercatchers further up the coast, but nothing exotic yet. Here at our house, there's a house finch in the window feeder.

I've seen photos from Vermont today that show a huge washout on Route 4 that carried utility poles down with it. Friends up and down the East Coast are posting stories of floods, washouts, wet basements, power outages, and general mayhem. Here in Camden, my triathlete neighbor just returned from his bike ride. Another neighbor just walked by, on her way to the store and back, in an outfit that didn't look at all storm-proof: heels, short skirt, thin blouse. But somewhere out there I know boats are rocking on their moorings, branches are cracking, and birds are getting blown off-course. And right here, right now, I'm feeling all that energy in the air and pacing the house like a cat.

Moon's pull and storm surge,
tugging on my very cells--
crazy energy.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

August 27: Storm Prep

Lovely afternoon sunshine has finally burned off the giant fog bank that lurked atop Camden all morning. I thought about sitting out on the back porch to write this, to soak up some sun and take advantage of this last day of relative calm before Hurricane Irene arrives. But then I remembered that I'd already put all our outdoor furniture in the shed. So now I'm sitting on the back step as the sun brightens and a light summery breeze shakes the prayer flags. Although Irene is supposed to have calmed down to Tropical Storm status by the time she hits Maine tomorrow, we're still probably going to get a lot of rain--thus, the dams have been fully opened on the Megunticook River to allow the extra water to flow through rather brim over in the lake. What this means for me is that the river is running a little higher and faster than it has been for most of the summer, its loud rush a counterpoint to the breeze in the beech leaves.

No matter what kind of storm Irene turns out to be when she passes coastal Maine, the peak will coincide with the new moon high tide tomorrow night, so things should be interesting on the waterfront. While I feel our house a mile inland is safe enough--we got a new roof this spring--the trees around it always respond badly to storms, tossing branches everywhere. Just last week the tree guy came by to look at the limbs I want trimmed this fall, and I've been eyeing them all day wishing he'd been able to get to them sooner.

But really my only concern is losing power. So I've spent most of the day dealing with little tasks that potential high winds and power outages necessitate. Fresh batteries in all our flashlights (and why do we have so many, anyway?)? Check. Oil in the oil lamp? Check. Fresh candles strategically located in each room? Check. All electronic devices fully charged? Check. Laundry done? Check. All lawn furniture in the shed? Check. All hanging plants tucked away in a quiet corner of the porch? Check. Bird feeders filled for anticipated pre-storm run by the chickadees? Check. Last minute necessities like a fresh bag of tortilla chips, boxes of rice milk, blueberries, and mango licorice purchased? Check. I even succumbed to a moment of preparation panic and bought a case of bottled water. Even though we're on town water, the sight of all those almost-empty shelves in the water aisle made me feel like it was the right thing to do somehow. Everyone else was doing it, after all. And it was only $4.99, and now I feel so much more, well, prepared.

Right now, though, it's turning into a sunny summer afternoon, and other than the run on water in the grocery store and the unexpected double-header Red Sox game (because they won't be playing tomorrow), you'd never know that a big, fat, wet hurricane was hustling our way. (Well, also the arthritis in my hand is particularly bad today, but I feel like an old lady saying that: "My hand aches--must be a storm coming.") Now that I've completed our storm prep, I plan on enjoying this calm before the storm as long as I can. And we'll see what tomorrow brings.

Hurricane Irene--
before August is over,
you'll wash us all clean.

Friday, August 26, 2011

August 26: Whimbrel

I just read a story (read this!) about a whimbrel wearing a radio transmitter that was tracked as it migrated non-stop from the Arctic until it hit the outer edge of Hurricane Irene. The whimbrel, a largish shorebird with a decurved bill, is infamous for its epic migration flights, flying thousands of miles at a time without pausing for rest. This particular bird appears to have made it alive to an island in the Caribbean, which he somehow knew how and was able to get to despite being caught in a potentially disorienting hurricane. Bird migration is an awe-inspiring thing, and this story just increases the amazement factor for me (besides the fact that we can actually follow this bird on his journey thanks to modern technology). While I'll still worry about the smaller songbirds that might get caught in the maelstrom as they blithely head south over the next few days, it's somewhat reassuring and very cool to know that some of the larger birds are tougher and more resourceful than we might have thought.

Whimbrel in a storm
flies on, knows where he's going.
We track him in awe.

Update to the above linked news story posted on August 27:
"Staff at The Center for Conservation Biology say it looks as if Chinquapin made it through the storm and is okay. "We have had several locations that put the bird on that island and the collective locations and sensor data suggest the bird is fine. After that hard flight it will likely stage within this site for days before completing its migration to the northern coast of South America," says Watts. The Center, based in Virginia, is in the middle of Irene right now and so won't be able to give further updates until Sunday, "if we have power," he says."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 25: Boat in a Storm

The sky is looking glowery and the wind's picking up. A storm's on the way, and I'm not talking about Hurricane Irene (although that storm is also apparently on its way). And with this weather report, we're about to blithely board a boat to North Haven to enjoy dinner at Nebo Lodge. The boat captain brushed off inquiries about possibly canceling the trip due to weather, so we're ready for an adventure. I just hope that after our big meal on the island, our ride back isn't more adventurous than our stomachs can handle...

"Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small." --Breton fishermen's prayer

We're small things at sea.
May the wind sing us to sleep
rocked in boat's cradle.

Update: The ride out with Equinox Island Transit was a little wet, but the sky cleared beautifully as we reached North Haven. After an excellent meal, we sped back to Rockland almost in time to miss the thunderstorm. Very dramatic to see from the water Owls Head Light and the Breakwater Light shining in the mist as lightning flashed around us and thunder rumbled overhead. And then, of course, the torrential rain, as if the spray from the boat ride hadn't made us wet enough. Truly exhilarating.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August 24: The Little Things

>My naturalist friend Kirk is particularly fond of mushrooms, slime molds, and things in-between. His Vinalhaven Sightings Reportwhich features wildlife of all kinds seen on that Penobscot Bay island, is heavy on the fungus among us. His interest (and interesting photos) has made me take a closer look at the mushrooms around me when I walk in the woods--especially in late summer when the birds are quieter so I'm not looking up all the time.

Today while hiking off-trail on Ragged Mountain I was paying more attention to the ground in front of me just to see where I was going. I was surprised by how many mushrooms dotted the forest floor, especially a tiny, bright orange mushroom that looks like something you'd see in the garden of a gnome house. It's so cute that I've photographed it on several different occasions, including today. I thought to share my photo with Kirk, who quickly responded: "The cute little orange guys are so cute that they are the cover species on George Barron's 'Mushrooms of Northeast north America' book. They are Chanterelle Waxy Caps, which are in no way chanterelles at all. They are an adorable find, and as you already know, have a solid presence in the woods this time of year. One of my favorites to find." Now that I know what they are, I'll probably photograph them more than ever.
Chanterelle Waxy Caps
I noticed other intriguing mushrooms, including a pretty lavender one that Kirk says is from the Cortinarus genus, some turkey tails (the fungus, not the bird parts), some ruffly orange ones that might have actually been chanterelles, and a big puffy white one being eaten by a slug. The "Corts," says Kirk, have a mycorrhizal relationship with trees, which is complex enough that I'm just going to send you to Wikipedia to read about it, but basically means that the mushroom and tree mutually benefit one another.Not only did I have fun spotting all these various fungi, but I learned something too.

Besides mushrooms, I also discovered other little things: quite a few Indian pipes poking up through the leaf litter here and there, bunchberry berries, a teeny yellow flower that I haven't been able to ID (some kind of dwarf aster?), spectacular patches of reindeer lichen, deer scat, a couple of turkey tail feathers (bird parts this time, not the fungus), wide, spongy beds of sphagnum moss, and, in one place, scattered clusters of black and white feathers pointing to the demise of what was once probably a black-and-white warbler.

Trees, yes, and forest,
but also, tiny mushrooms,
berries, slugs, feathers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 23: Brief Revival

The purple clematis that climbs up my porch railing has had its best summer ever, flourishing like never before with both greenery and blooms. I attribute its health to a tip from landscaper Tom Jackson, who told me that it needed some shade around its base. I let ferns grow around it, and instead of all the leaves dying off halfway through the flowering cycle, as had happened past summers, they're still going strong here in late August. And although the flowers have come and gone--the pretty petals all fell off several weeks ago--we noticed yesterday that the recent rains seem to have encouraged a brief revival: one fresh blossom and another just-opening bud, looking bright and fresh amid the spiky remains of all those gone-by blossoms.

One last clematis!
I'd already said good-bye
until next summer.

Monday, August 22, 2011

August 22: Just some eagles

Late yesterday afternoon we visited my sister and family at their lakeside camp. My brother-in-law, father, and two nieces were out in the little beat-up motorboat that my brother-in-law had somehow coaxed back to life, making the most of the day's dying light with one last ride. When they landed at the dock, my five-year-old niece came running up to see us. "How was the boat ride?" we asked her. "What did you see out there?" "Oh, just some eagles," she replied nonchalantly.

Shortly thereafter, as we shared hors d'oeuvres on the deck, we did indeed see a bald eagle, soaring majestically over the island directly across from us. My niece informed us that she wasn't a fan of eagles because they "look mean." As best we can tell, her only frame of reference for an eagle's facial expression is the wooden eagle sculpture that was hanging near our table at The Waterfront Restaurant when we took her out to dinner there recently. For a child, however, the devil's in the details.

What I love is that seeing "some eagles" is almost a non-event for her. I don't think I saw my first bald eagle here in Maine until I was in high school. And it was years more before I began seeing them on a regular basis. Maine's eagle population has made an incredible comeback from the days of DDT--there are over 500 breeding pairs in the state now, and the species has been federally delisted. Eagles soaring over Maine's lakes are becoming a common sight, one that I hope will remain so for my nieces for many years to come.

A wish for my niece:
may bald eagles always soar
in your summer skies.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

August 21: Fire Hydrant

Dense fog has settled over the midcoast, as often happens this time of year: 100% humidity. Even the crows' cawing in the yard sounds a bit muffled. A short run left me soaking wet (not to be too gross or anything), the moist, warm air clinging to my skin, mingling with my sweat. Mount Battie was completely hidden by the mist.

This time of year, I particularly enjoy how the goldenrod in the fields glows so brightly on these muted mornings. One family along my running route mows only the lawn directly in front of their house; the rest of the yard, between the strip of lawn and the road, they let grow wild. Chipping sparrows, doves, and goldfinches seemed to enjoy this, as well, as that's where they were all hanging out today. Right now, that roadside field is rife with blooming goldenrod, made all the more stunning by the fact that the backdrop, their house, is bright red with lime green trim.

But what struck my eye the most on my little outing was, oddly, coming upon a newly painted, vividly red fire hydrant tucked away in the roadside weeds. The town has been repainting all its fire hydrants this summer in an attempt to make them more visible, and that certainly worked with this one. I must have passed it a hundred times on my runs and never noticed it amid all the surrounding greenery. In its way it was on the same fog-busting color scale as the goldenrod. And in its way, on this quiet, muggy, foggy morning, just as beautiful.

It's not a cardinal,
but this hydrant's shade of red
also makes me smile.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 20: Things Invisible to See

While I was reading in the back yard late this afternoon, a hummingbird was chattering perpetually overhead. It seemed to be buzzing between our yard and our neighbor's (which is full of enticing flowers right now), pausing occasionally in a spruce tree that hangs over the fence between us. I don't know if it was nesting in the spruce--I've found hummingbird nests in spruces before and admired the added protection of all those prickly needles--or perhaps sipping spruce sap, but the tree seemed to be its primary focus. Its high-pitched calls were not aggressive or territorial, though the bird can be both, but more conversational. A "here I am, hanging out near my favorite tree" kind of sound.

Meanwhile, I could also smell a delightful fragrance on the breeze, the scent of some unknown flower wafting my way. If I closed my eyes in my lawn chair, the redolent air combined with the birdsong around me (mostly the hummingbird), and I could almost imagine I was somewhere semi-tropical.

Shortly thereafter I learned that an old friend and his family had recently been in a very bad car accident. Apparently among his serious injuries, his heart was literally crushed. (He's a writer, and I know that when he recovers, he's going to use that image as a metaphor somehow.) This all seems like a non sequitur, but as my mind shifted from enjoyment of the hummingbird's song to coming inside to write about it and then learning about my friend's accident, this silly haiku project--my attempt at trying to pay attention to these little moments that make up our life, these fragments of beauty, joy, and poetry--seemed somehow more important than ever to me. We never know when they might all be taken away, or when we might be forced to shift our perspective on what even constitutes beauty and joy for us.

Rather than reducing them to trivialities, I think such mindful moments can help root us in the present and give value to our existence, and by extension, the existence of all life: hummingbirds, aromatic flowers, the fragile physical existence of humanity... One moment I was listening to a hummingbird and pretending I was in the Caribbean; the next, my thoughts were entirely with my friend and his family. And yet the two moments are united, just as when we think about where we were when we heard sad news, some unimportant detail always surfaces and becomes a part of that whole experience. (When you think of where you were when you heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center, for example, what random details surface in your memory?)

As the world suffers,
in this moment I focus
on hearing a bird.

Friday, August 19, 2011

August 19: Drowsy

At Long Grain in Camden for lunch I enjoyed rice cakes with chives in some kind of sweet sauce and a rather filling bowl of crabmeat fried rice (topped with a "free range egg")--way more than I usually consume at that time of day. As soon as I got back to the office I felt in desperate need of a siesta. Instead, I plowed on through to finish up all that I'd wanted to get done this work week, but uncharacteristically left the office right at 5:00.

I was supposed to go for a run tonight, but wasn't really looking forward to it because I was still feeling so sleepy, a state not helped by this muggy weather. My own tired body conspired to save me from my run, however because as I was walking out to my car, I slipped on the gravel and fell hard, banging up my knee. No big deal, but sore enough that I didn't want to run on it right away and aggravate the swelling. Instead, I grabbed a magazine and an ice pack and lounged in the back yard for an hour. A hummingbird buzzed overhead, paused on branch. Maybe she was tired, too. A crow flapped desultorily past. Crickets chirred dreamily. I might have fallen asleep on the spot if my husband hadn't arrived home. There's something that seems so indulgent, so langourous, about letting yourself just give in to sleepiness when it's not "bedtime." Like letting your mind go on vacation.

Crickets' lullaby,
all birds silent in this heat:
let all thoughts go. Sleep.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 18: Nighthawks

Yesterday someone posted a report on the Maine Birding listserv about seeing over 100 nighthawks migrating over the Kennebec River. One of the joys of late August birding is coming upon flocks of these acrobatic fliers soaring over a field or waterway as they wend their way south. They really do look a bit like small hawks, with their pointed, slender wings; and yes, they do prefer the evening hours, when they "hawk" for insects, darting and twisting with true aerial skill and beauty.

This evening I was attending an outdoor event being held in a big open hayfield. I mentioned to a birder friend there that this would be the perfect place to see nighthawks. They seem to prefer that time at the end of the day when the light is rich and clear, just before dusk begins to fully settle. And sure enough, about half an hour later we looked up to see several nighthawks flying overhead, flitting off to the next field and out of sight. Sometimes when you're in the right place at the right time, what you expect to see actually shows up.

Besides annual glimpses of nighthawks migrating--I think in particular of one August evening a few years ago when I was driving along the Penobscot River north of Orono--the most memorable nighthawk observation I ever experienced was when my husband and I were in Tucson, Arizona for our honeymoon. The resort where we were staying was surrounded by desert and backed by Mount Lemmon, a lovely place, and we'd found some interesting birds just walking the grounds. Walking past the tennis courts one night, which had their lights on for those who wanted to play in the coolness of evening, we were shocked to look up and realize that dozens of nighthawks were flashing through the night sky chasing all the insects drawn to the court lights. An unexpectedly breathtaking sight, like suddenly being visited by a host of angels. We just stood there and watched for a long time.

Dusk falls, angels come--
flitting above the river,
migrating nighthawks.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August 17: Grasshoppers

Last week's New Yorker featured an interesting article on humans eating insects for food (entomophagy). It included a photograph of a lipsticked mouth about to eat a giant, colorful grasshopper. While I enjoyed the article and could even imagine myself at some time eating sauteed termite larvae or chocolate-covered ants, there's no way I could ever eat a grasshopper. They've grossed me out ever since I got a science kit when I was 7 that included a big lubber grasshopper to dissect. My stepmother and I dissected the frog just fine, but I threw away the grasshopper. It scared me.

My disgust may be rooted in having read at an early age the Laura Ingalls Wilder book "On the Banks of Plum Creek," in which the Ingalls family's wheat crop is decimated by a plague of locusts--or rather, a swarm of grasshoppers. She describes in horrific detail the swarming mass of the insects, the constant sound of their chewing, and how they crawled over everything, even through their house.

Hiking with an entomologist friend many years later, however, I couldn't help but be amused by how he'd catch a grasshopper, observe it a closely, even a bit tenderly, while reciting its scientific name, and then let it go again. He'd say, "There's a fine bug!" in true admiration. To an entomologist, at least, there's something to love about a grasshopper.

This afternoon part of my running route took me down a sidewalk that bordered a vacant lot overgrown with weeds. The pavement itself had been heated by the sun all day, and apparently grasshoppers were drawn to its warm surface, because with each step, dozens of them sprayed into the air in all directions. The whole length of the sidewalk, until I got to a house with a mown lawn, was grasshopper city. As long as I didn't have to eat or dissect them, I didn't mind. It was actually kind of cool, probably the most dynamic moment of my rather sluggish outing.

With each running step,
explosion of grasshoppers
from the hot sidewalk.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 16: Sky

Coastal Mountains Land Trust's Annual Meeting took place this evening in Beech Nut, a stone, sod-roofed hut at our Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport. We were a bit uneasy at first, because it had been raining steadily all day, and to reach the hut you have to hike 3/4-mile up a dirt road, utterly exposed to the elements. But as we began setting things up, the rain abated and a rainbow spread over Penobscot Bay. We took that as an auspicious sign.

At the end of the meeting, as mist lifted from the mountains and the day's storm clouds passed away to the east, sunlight broke through to shine on the fields and islands below. And soon, we were treated to a breathtaking sunset--the kind that just gets more beautiful and intense the longer you watch. It began as an explosion of sun against Mount Pleasant, turning it into a virtual volcano, and ended as layers of pinks, purples, and peaches spread across spangled clouds and puffs of mist, a riot of color and texture. 

One of the special aspects of Beech Hill is its open summit, revealing the sky in all its glory. Tonight I felt grateful to be able to watch the sky shift through so many moods in such spectacular fashion as we celebrated the Land Trust's 25th anniversary.   

Thankful for these clouds
making rainbows possible
and-oh!-this sunset!

Monday, August 15, 2011

August 15: Only in Maine

I met an old friend from high school for a drink after work today. He's been living a life in high finance and investing in New York, so he doesn't get back to Maine often. When I showed up, he said, "I know I'm in Maine when it's cold and raining and you're wearing flip-flops!"

My friend had taken his two little boys mackerel fishing in Rockport harbor today in a punt with a tiny motor. They hadn't gotten far when the motor broke. But the boys had trolling rods, so he ended up rowing them around the harbor for an hour-and-a-half while they fished for mackerel. They each caught three. I've got to think that as they grow up in suburban New York, their Maine summer experiences will seem magical to them. Those are the lasting memories, the ones that will bind them to this place no matter where they end up.

Walking to my car in the rain, dusk falling, I watched an osprey soar overhead on its way to the harbor. I love that I live in a place where ospreys sail past on a regular basis, in any weather.

Back home, as my husband and I were planning out what to have for supper, a friend drove up with a tray full of fresh-caught squid: there's our meal. Perfect. Only in Maine. It's these little things, these telling little stories of place gathered up each day, that make me feel so grateful that we live where we do.

A friend shares his catch:
squid jigged in Rockport harbor.
Fruit of the full moon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

August 14: Flocks of Geese

This morning I passed a large gathering in a farm field along Simonton Road. The field hadn't been hayed for a while, so the geese were surrounded by tall grass, with frilly white blooms of Queen Anne's lace bobbing above their heads. I'm sure there were a lot more geese in that field than I could readily see as I drove on past. It was almost comical, all those long necks poking up through the greenery and wildflowers. Migrating flocks pausing in the short-grass prairies of the Great Plains must have once looked like that. (I say "once" because there are so few pockets of this habitat left, though thanks to land conservation efforts there are some remaining bits of these once vast, wildlife-rich prairies.)

A little further along, on Meadow Street at this point, I passed another, smaller flock of geese. This group was grazing on what would best be described as a large lawn of cropped, green grass. The geese were quite visible and well occupied with poking around for whatever it is geese poke around for in fields... I know domestic geese like to pull up plants and can actually nicely weed a garden bed. Were these geese simply plucking grass or was there something juicier they were after?

OK, I had to look that up. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "Canada Geese eat grain from fields, graze on grass, and dabble in shallow water by tipping forward and extending their necks underwater. During much of the year they associate in large flocks, and many of these birds may be related to one another." So these flocks I was seeing were probably extended family groups chewing on the scenery. But when I saw them, especially the first, larger flock that made me laugh, I wasn't actually thinking about their feeding habits or their communal behaviors (e.g. it's a well-known fact that geese generally pair for life). I was thinking, "Geese are on the move already? [Expletive deleted.] Summer's almost over?!"

Geese flocking in fields.
I'm never ready for change, 
but Earth keeps turning. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

August 13: Early Morning Clamor

My niece Fiona slept-over last night--in my bed with me, in fact, while my poor husband (who snores) was relegated to the inflatable spare bed in his office. Because we stayed up so late watching a movie she'd brought, she fortunately fell asleep almost immediately, after my reading only two pages of "Little House in the Big Woods." This morning, we both woke up at 6:00 a.m., but thankfully she decided that was too early to get up and so fell back asleep.

I was almost asleep again myself, when it started: the blue jay racket. Right outside the bedroom window, several jays were yelling loudly and incessantly at something and they were not relenting. I kept thinking that any minute they'd stop, having moved along an intruding cat (usually what instigates such a racket) or hawk. But they kept going, and I worried they'd wake up my niece. Being a good auntie (who wants more sleep herself), I went outside to see what it was and if I could help move it along so the birds would shut up. I was very surprised, when I got out there, to look up and see a young porcupine hanging out in a tree just above our shed. I wasn't going to have much influence with that situation. So I went back in to bed hoping Fiona would somehow sleep through the noise now augmented by a family of cardinals and a couple of crows. Of course she didn't.

But she was very interested in going out to see the baby porcupine. So we watched it for a while, and then began our day. When my husband woke up an hour later it was still there. Two hours later it was still there, only having shifted position a bit. But when we returned from a day's outing with my niece and her family late this afternoon, it appeared to have moved on--from our yard, at least. Since porcupines are slow creatures, it's probably not far away. (My niece astutely compared it to a sloth.)

I'm still not entirely sure why the birds were so agitated about the porcupine, which was probably just looking for a place to hang out and nap for the day (they're generally nocturnal). My husband thinks it would eat birds' eggs if it found them, but I think they're mostly herbivores. Perhaps the birds just don't like a bulky mammal hanging out in their trees.

Real life angry birds
disturbing the porcupine's
sleep and mine--for what?

Friday, August 12, 2011

August 12: Slumber Party

Little time to write tonight--it's been a busy one. My five-year-old niece came over for her first sleepover. We dined out at the Waterfront: pasta with butter for her, followed by a big hot fudge sundae. At Theo B. Camisole we found her a pretty new nightgown with embroidered flowers for her to wear for this special occasion. The salesclerk even tossed in a free tube of lavender hand cream. Then a walk around Camden harbor as the full moon rose in a clear sky above all those famous sailboats. In Harbor Park we walked up the stone wall of the waterfall and watched teeny baby ducks bob along the shore with lots of adults. When we got home, we had to see if the real lavender in our garden smells like the lavender hand cream. It actually does. Now, after much settling in, we're watching "Rio." She thinks we'll like it because we like birds. I just hope I can stay awake for the whole thing.

Sleepover with niece:
sundae, new nightie, movie--
will we ever sleep?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August 11: Birthday

Today was my mother's birthday, and we celebrated at my sister and brother-in-law's camp on the lake en famille: my sister, brother-in-law, two nieces, my brother-in-law's parents, his brother and sister-in-law and their baby girl, my parents, and us. The clouds that had lurked overhead all day bunched up against the green hills to clear the skies, as the glow of the setting sun cast a rich light on the clouds, the water, the surrounding pines. My husband caught a frog to show my niece. Fish jumped. Pewees called back and forth in the forest. As dusk fell, bats fluttered back and forth. My niece learned the constellation Cassiopeia, who turns out to have been a queen of Ethiopia, where one of her friends was born. We walked barefoot down to the dock to look for falling stars from the Perseid meteor shower but only saw the plumes of our breath in the crisp air.

My brother-in-law grilled steak and lobster; his mother made potato salad and tomato and beet salad; his brother made an apple pie; my sister provided a birthday cake with candles; we brought fresh Beech Hill blueberries. We all feasted with much joy and laughter. We left as the almost-full moon was rising, full as the moon ourselves and happy.

When I'm 64,
I want this too: lake, family,
good food, stories, stars.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

August 10: Guest Poet

While my sister's in-laws plied me with drinks at Natalie's this evening before dinner, her father-in-law Eijk asked me about haiku. I explained the basic tradition and form, including the essential reference to a season and the concept of trying to capture a moment in nature. He then promptly wrote this haiku on a cocktail napkin:

Trees wither simply.
One red leaf decides to die,
fluttering to earth.

(Sorry, Eijk, I had to add a word to line two to give you seven syllables.)

I found it very interesting that as we were enjoying the lush green beauty of summer's peak, a hazy waxing moon rising over the harbor outside, and a restaurant bustling around us with summer visitors, he chose to write a rather poignant poem about fall. But I'm glad he wrote something, because by the time we got home from a long dinner with the four of them at Francine, stuffed and happy, my brain was too tired to come up with anything of my own. Thank you, Eijk, Rose-Marie, Erin and Sander for a lovely evening! (And that last sentence is actually 17 syllables, so there's my haiku.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

August 9: Blackberries

I led a writers' group up Beech Hill this afternoon, and, being writers, they wanted to know all sorts of interesting things: how my mother is doing (her friend Gail was in the group); what bird was making that noise (towhee); how one harvests blueberries (with rakes, by hand, back-breakingly); the names of various wildflowers in the fields (daisy fleabane was a favorite); what that lighthouse was (Indian Island Light outside Rockport harbor); the purpose of the stone circle overgrown with rugosa rose bushes in front of the stone hut (former bonfire pit), etc.

Being human, they also had their eyes open for ripe blueberries along the trail. Of course, since Coastal Mountains Land Trust hosted a public free pick this past weekend which was attended by hundreds of people also scanning the trailside for berries, pickings were slim. We did, however, come across many low vines loaded down with clusters of blackberries--lots of hard, unripe berries like little red fists.

I have a collection of poems about blackberries; among berries, they hold a special place in my heart for that reason (see my August 3, 2010 post). But what I enjoy most about all berries is eating them. These ruby red jewels will soon burgeon into juicy purple-black fruits. Perhaps the berry-loving cedar waxwings overhead were thinking that same thing. Who doesn't love a blackberry? (Or a blueberry, or a raspberry...) It occurs to me that the berries actually depend on that. They're not that enticing for nothing. Today's red knots of fruit tucked amid stalks of goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace were promises of what's soon to come.

It's all about seeds,
encouraging dispersal.
That's why they taste good.

Monday, August 8, 2011

August 8: Curiosity

This morning I looked out the window and saw three crows walking all around a dark patch on my neighbor's lawn. They were pecking at it and seemed genuinely very interested in the area. Wondering if it was a carcass of some kind (and worried for the neighbors' cats), I got out the binoculars. It turned out to be a rudimentary fire pit, about two by two, that our neighbors must have scraped out of the lawn to sit a grill on. The square looked to be mostly sooty dirt with some blocks of wood bounding the edges. The crows were apparently just checking it out, this new little dead patch on the lawn where they often graze. Perhaps they even found little pieces of charred hotdog or burger fat to snack on.

I was reminded of how our cat used to focus on the slightest little change or addition to the house. If I moved a plant, the next time she was in the room she'd be over there sniffing the pot. If I set something on the floor, she'd make a beeline for it. She burned her whiskers off once checking out floating candles in a bowlful of water. I always admired her attentiveness to her surroundings, even if it sometimes got her into trouble. Maybe that's why the crows do their exploring in threes, to spread the risk.

Even the crows are
entertained by a cookout,
though they arrived late.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

August 7: Froggy Weather

Tonight's misty rain and fog brought out the frogs. As we drove the winding dirt road from my sister and brother-in-law's camp, we saw many tiny frogs, maybe an inch or two in size, hopping in front of the headlights. Clearly they'd been waiting for a wet evening to roam from their home pools and puddles and explore the world. My husband is particularly fond of frogs. At one point when we came upon a little frog that didn't want to move from the road in front of our car, he asked me to get out and shoo it off the road. It was so small that I couldn't even see it at first, but then in three hops it was back in the woods. We saw several more on the rest of the drive home, flashing in the headlights like pale superballs bouncing across the dark pavement. My husband drove carefully, trying to miss each one.

Summoned by the rain
frogs explore the wet, new world.
Be careful, drivers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

August 6: Secretary

Every once in a while a synchronicity gives me pause. Two times today someone has mentioned that the original definition of "secretary" was "keeper of secrets." The first time was in an article in The New Yorker, in reference to someone who was secretary to a public official (I think) and thus privy to their secrets. The second was during tonight's Pecha Kucha in Belfast, when an artist showed a slide of a piece of furniture he had made, a big secretary desk with many drawers to keep people's secrets.

Last night while at a friend's historic house, getting a tour of its antiques and intriguing old things (like a closet full of valuable Queen Anne chairs), we came upon a piece of furniture that particularly interested me. It was made of fine wood, about a foot wide, above waist height, with a top-lifting lid. Inside were three or four divided sections. The house's owner thinks that it was a letter holder, a miniature, perhaps even portable, form of a secretary. There's nothing in it now. I coveted this piece of furniture, thinking of the journals and scraps of my life that I could stash there. But probably not letters. Hardly anyone ever sends me a letter anymore.

Once while looking for a book in a boyfriend's school bag, I came upon a cache of love letters to him from an ex he clearly wasn't quite through with. She'd mailed them to his box at the English Department for which we both taught--his mail box just a few slots away from mine. A male friend I consulted told me to just ignore it, so I did. He was the only one I told. A similar thing happened recently to a friend of a friend who is currently separated from his wife, cementing his resolve to make the separation permanent. Everyone's got their secrets stashed away somewhere, a secretary of some sort hiding their deepest and darkest.

There's something about the act of writing that reveals glimpses of our secret self, but only glimpses. Our thoughts are all unwritten letters, most best left unshared. How often do we really share a secret with someone? How often do we write something down that arises from our innermost soul? When I was in grad school, one of my professors--as part one of our one-on-one meetings--asked us to share a secret with him about ourselves that no one else knew, and then he would share one with us. I've kept his secret for so long now that I don't even remember what it was. Or, come to think of it, what mine was.

As a haiku the following poem is horrible--no "season word," no reference to the natural world. But sometimes this is what happens when one writes at midnight. The tired mind lets down its guard and taps into different sources.

Old memories filed,
secrets pigeon-holed. Some nights
I lift the lid, peek.

Friday, August 5, 2011

August 5: Starry starry night

We stepped out of a friend's house on Owls Head harbor on this starry night and heard the music of the spheres. Well, it was actually music drifting across the water from the Lobster Festival in Rockland. But on this clear summer evening--with a first quarter moon rising from behind the trees and billions and billions of stars overhead--it seemed like some sort of celestial event.

As we drove home, my husband and I talked about what it must have been like back before there was any ambient light, when the night sky and all its stars were perfectly clear and visible, undiminished. No wonder the stars were so much more important in people's lives then. They could actually see them on a regular basis, learn their patterns, track them. I wonder what the best place on earth is to observe the night sky now. The wilds of Alaska? Somewhere in the middle of the Rockies? The Gobi Desert? An uninhabited tropical island? The Himalayas? I know I've camped in places in the past where the night sky was startlingly clear, packed with stars--the kind of sky that when you climb out of your tent in the middle of the night, you just stand there in utter rapture, your sense of self lost before the broad spectacle of the universe.

Even with the street light pollution near our house, we still felt a small sense of awe when we stepped out of our car and looked up. And here, the crickets are trilling. Who's to say they aren't harmonizing with the many distant suns twinkling overhead?

August: crickets, stars,
waxing moon rising slowly.
These are the best nights.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August 4: A Bird in the Hand Is Worth...

While working intensely at my desk this morning, focused, busy, intent on what I was doing, a flash of movement out the window caught my eye. I looked up and had to laugh out loud: two crows were precariously balanced on the slender branches of the nearest high bush blueberry. A third was perched on a nearby post, overseeing the antics. The two birds in the bush were doing their best to keep their balance while grabbing as many fat blueberries as they could. As close as they were in that tiny bush, they looked huge. I could see that the mantle of one of the birds had a brown cast to it, it was that near.

I've seen blue jays and catbirds tempted by those berries, but until yesterday, never a bird as large as a crow. Yesterday's crow simply snatched berries from the stable perch of the post at the end of the driveway. Today's two birds were a bit more ambitious, and acrobatic. It was truly entertaining to watch those ungainly crows clutching the twiggy branches for dear life while daintily plucking at the ripe berries.

A fourth crow flew toward them to join in the fun, but then the lookout bird cawed, and they all flew off up the driveway together. But it wasn't long before a couple of them returned. Then later I heard a racket of crows yelling frantically across the river at something, probably some kind of hawk or an unlucky roosting owl. That was apparently distracting enough that they didn't get back for more berries today. But I'll look for them tomorrow for more amusement.

Too much temptation:
two crows in a too-small bush
plucking ripe berries.

After first witnessing this entertaining activity outside my window, I called in my co-worker to see, but the birds were already in flight by the time he arrived. So he told me a story about how when he was five, playing with a friend at the playground, a crow flew up and landed on his shoulder. The two boys were thrilled, naturally, and he walked home with the crow still perched there. It stayed with him as they continued playing in the back yard, till at one point his mother looked out and noticed their avian companion. ("It followed us home, Mom. Can we keep it?") She realized that no wild bird would be this tame, so she called someone--who do you call when you find a tame crow?--and eventually tracked down the crow's owner. Despite it being a pet, there's still got to be something special about being picked out by a crow like that.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

August 3: Kettle

Hiking down the ridge of Ragged Mountain this afternoon, just below the communications tower, I looked out to see a kettle of about a dozen turkey vultures soaring on a thermal. The combination of billowing clouds and hot sun must have produced the perfect ride for these big raptors. They circled higher and higher as I watched, until the birds at the top of the swirling column began to drift off, one by one, and head toward the mountain, toward me. Because I was so close to the summit at that point, they were almost at eye-level. There are few birds that make me wish more fervently for the gift of flight.

The couple I was hiking with had gone on safari in Botswana last year, and they told me how soaring vultures are a sign there of lions on prey. When you see the vultures start to drop down and land, that's a sign that the lions have gone; the vultures are moving in to pick at what's left of the carcass. As we watched the vultures in their glorious group flight, we couldn't help but joke that perhaps there were lions somewhere below them.

No lions' prey here.
Heat rising off the mountain
brings vultures this joy.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

August 2: Dusk Flights

A big Land Trust event this evening saw me back at the office at 8 p.m. unloading stuff from my car in the dark. At one point as I was standing outside talking to one of my co-workers between bouts of carrying boxes, a bat flew at face level right between us, probably ten feet in front of me. I always like seeing bats, so that was a little thrill, having one flutter past so close on its way to the river to pick off some bugs for dinner.

Then, as I was driving home, I looked up, and in the clouded, darkling sky, recognized the outline of an osprey. What was it doing out so late? Where was it headed? Hawks have much better eyes than we do, so perhaps it sees well in dim light. It piqued my curiosity, in any case. Good night, bat. Good night, osprey. Good night, storm clouds.

Osprey after dark?
We'll never understand birds.
That's not a bad thing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

August 1: Misty Mountain Hop

This morning when I entered my office, it was a beautiful summer day: blue sky, sun shining, goldenrod blooming, goldfinches cheerily visiting the feeder. I focused on work, not paying much attention to what was going on outside the window most of the day--except to watch for a while as two crows worked out a strategy to raid the high bush blueberries. But then this afternoon I happened to look out a window in a co-worker's office that faces Mount Battie and noticed that the mountain wasn't there. Instead, the rocky slope we usually see was completely enveloped in a thick mist. A blank white slate of sky loomed behind the trees.

After work I drove into town on an errand and watched the fog literally rolling up Mountain Street. A deep summer mist had descended upon the town. The bright shop windows and bustling tourists kept the mood lively, but the backdrop of this pretty harbor town was muted, all softened edges, lightly veiled. Later, I mowed the lawn in the mist, enjoying the 100% humidity condensing on my skin as I dragged the mower through the damp, overgrown grass. After I came inside, my husband looked up. "Wow, look at that fog!" he said, as if just noticing it for the first time.

Fog hides the mountain.
Or maybe it's disappeared,
moved on in the mist.