Friday, December 01, 2006

Foul Weather Friends

High winds and torrential rains this morning kept me off the stream so I opted to do some of the chores I had been putting off for a rainy day. Since I knew there’d a lot of walking through puddles of parking lots, I dug out my foul-weather shoes that I left in the garage to be cleaned—last August I think. Today’s rain would do the job I had neglected.
I’ve camped and lived in enough places where little critters—particularly those that can inflict disproportionate pain—get into shoes that have been unoccupied for more than 24 hours. As is my habit, I knocked the heel of the shoe on the garage floor before inserting my foot.
Ha! Somebody’s stash of sunflower seeds had found its way into my L.L. Bean shoes. Forty-eight seeds, still in the husk. A quick check of the right shoe revealed another 63 seeds.
So, the mystery: Whose seeds are these, how did the critter get into my garage, and will it come back? The answer to the first two questions is chipmunk. The answer to the third is, probably not. Those little clowns should be deep in their burrows now. The exceptionally warm weather has keep them above ground longer than usual, however, today, our first real taste of northeast Ohio winter, probably has some little guy dreaming of 100 or more seeds he hid somewhere, but just can’t remember where.
In winter, chipmunks and humans alike, seem to survive on dreams in our separate hibernations.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Disappearing America

I was up a couple hours before sunrise this morning, taking a look at Mercury. A fast, elusive planet if there ever was one. Mercury has never been photographed by the Hubble Sky Telescope. Not because it’s fast. Because of its proximity to the sun. The folks in Baltimore who control the Hubble wisely don’t want to point the scope in the direction of Mercury, fearing even the slightest miscalculation would cause the sun’s rays to whack the delicate instrument.
Today, however, Mercury was at it’s widest elongation from the sun, about the width of two fists from an Earthling’s perspective. 100 minutes before sunrise, looking southeast, eye level, was the perfect time to view the planet. You missed it.
It got me to thinking about the effort we expend to see distant planets, while at the same time hide the Earth. Well, our small spec of Earth called America.
We make our land disappear by covering it with housing developments and shopping malls, while we search outer space for more land. What is also being lost as the land disappears, is the wildlife. And as the wildlife disappears, so do our hopes and promises for a better future.
To close the wound and hide the scars, we erect cement walls. These allegedly prevent the sounds of the highway from reaching people stupid enough to buy houses hard by the freeway. Then these folks stay inside their air conditioned homes (televisions spewing shows about NASCAR races and wild animals) sending e-mail to politicians demanding something be done about that noise from the highway. Or, skunks under the deck.
The sound barriers, paid for with our tax dollars, are like politician’s promises, never intended to be kept. They’re just to make people feel good.
If the sound barriers (Why not call them prison walls? Oh, prison walls are made of wire so prisoners can look out and be irritated by what they’re missing. I get it.) are not enough to block your view, we have plenty of billboards—litter on a stick. Or, signs declaring you’re crossing a river that’s been designated scenic, wild and beautiful. Of course, you never get to see that river. We create high walls of concrete to prevent people from driving over the edge of the bridge while attempting to get a better view of the scene. Don’t look, just read the sign at 70 miles per hour. That’s all you really need.
Have you noticed how many tire marks are on those barriers? Obviously, people are longing for a better look at what they’re missing.
All of this hiding of America is okay. It no longer matters. Kids have DVD players in the car to distract them from getting curious about those big birds sitting on a branch, or those animals grazing in the field. Adults have cell phones. When I was a kid, on our annual family vacation trip to my dad’s home in Indiana, I’d hang out of the car window like a dog for eight hours and hit the ground running as soon as I smelled the lake. Probably not safe. Too much fresh air might even account for my attitude fifty-some years later.
Well, trust me, America is still out there—someplace. Get off the highway, out of the car and onto your feet or a bicycle. Go to a park and just sit on a stump and see, smell and hear what the rest of America is missing.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Weather or Not

I suspect there is some correlation between the appearance of holiday decorations and complaints about winter weather. Christmas decorations began appearing sometime between Memorial Day and Fourth of July this year. And moaning about cold weather was close behind.
Grumbling in the office has become almost as intolerable as the obnoxious music in stores, clerks running around in red stocking caps and fake trees decorated with fake birds. And it’s only Armistice Day.
A couple of cellmates were complaining about the approach of winter and how there’s nothing to do. The whining sounded like a couple of eight-year-olds who don’t realize the sacrifice their parents made to take them to Disney Universe. To play the devil’s advocate, and because I know I’m right, I told them there is plenty to do if they can leave the confines of their television rooms long enough to get their feet cold. Winter is exciting.
A lot of great things happen in winter. NASCAR stops racing, for one. Another is that you can go for a walk in the woods and discover what happened. You find tracks in the snow and learn which animal passed this way, crossed the path of another or turned and followed that other. You find blood and guts and feathers or fur and learn who’s having whom for lunch.
In winter, trails are less crowded, birds more visible and air more refreshing.
Fishing is a bit tougher. When your reel is screaming as a steelhead trout slams your fly and takes off like a rocket, however, you’ll forget that your fingers and toes are frozen. So much adrenaline courses through your body that you’ll wish you weren’t wearing that second set of long underwear. Your mind races through all the things you know about fishing and in a split second you come to the realization that the instructor never taught you what to do if you actually hook a fish!
You’re on your own, just like all the other creatures in the woods in winter.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Loons and Luna(s)

When I checked my e-mail mid-way through Sunday I knew there was going to be trouble. If not a trouble, at least an unplanned birding adventure. The listserv was reporting 100 Common Loons along Lake Erie's shore opposite Rocky River.
Loons are one of the those birds you just can’t get enough of since they’re not a regular around here.
Off we went. Sure enough, at least 100 or more loons floating, diving, flying. Along with numerous Horned Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers, Buffleheads and the countless gulls. Well, the single Great Black-backed Gull was easy to count. White-winged Scoters!
A non-birder, out enjoying the evening in the park stood by as we oooed and aaaed; talking with other birders in that code we often use. Finally he asked to look through my scope at something called a horned grebe. He couldn’t imagine what these crazy people were so excited about. Then he had to see a loon. And what is a Bufflehead?
So what was going on? Why all the loons when hardly any had been reported so far this fall? I think it had to do with that other object with the similar name. It was a full moon Sunday. Luna in all her glory. A day of high tides and unrealized pull on the fluids of the planet as well as our bodies.
That day when cops say things are a bit more loony than usual.

Things that Go Clack in the Night

Things that Go Clack in the Night

I’ve started taking a regular, daily walk--minimum of three miles. Since I started this project before we made the shift back to Standard Time from Daylight Stupid Time, this evening was the first opportunity to walk my regular route along the Hike and Bike Trail in the dark.
Whole new world out there after the sun goes down.
The regular scurrying of various sparrow species, along with the occasional Dark Eyed Junco and Carolina Wren entertained me through the twilight minutes. Nearing the end of my walk only silhouettes were visible. An owl flew from the woods and landed on the crossbar of a high-tension tower 20 feet above me. I cranked my head around to look at it while it was doing the same, looking at me, as I passed beneath. Great Horned or Barred? Couldn’t tell. Sizes can be deceptive in the twilight.
The endorphins were pumping after that when I heard thrashing and thumping sounds coming from the nearby bushes. The loud grunting noises sounded like a 64-year-old man digging frozen-solid ice cream out of a container. Then the percussion section entered. Clack, clack, clack!
When I drew along side the noise I realized it was a pair of white-tailed bucks locked in combat! The animals were thrashing and butting heads about 15 feet away and must have picked up my scent. Suddenly they decided that it was a better idea to run than rut. Off they went in search of a car to jump in front of.
I walked about 50 yards down the trail and suddenly a sapling tree just off the trail started waving back and forth and violent thumping ensued.
I could just see the back shape of another white-tailed buck. This guy was using a tree as a punching bag.
It must have been boys night out in the woods. And even though I was one of them, and all for what they had in mind, I figured it best to make a hasty retreat. You just never can be sure about those hormones.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Going It Alone

Naturalist, writer, friend, Wendy often squirrels away little messages about, or for, life in her blog, The blog is purportedly about life in the urban wilds.
Recently she mused about squirrels preparing for winter and how they hide nuts, managing to retrieve enough to survive the winter when the snow flies. It says much about self preservation and long-term survival.
It got me to thinking and searching my mental database for comparable things in nature that might be reflected in the business world. In business, these days, it's all about teamwork and cooperation for survival. That's survival of the company, of course, often at the expense of the individual.
I thought of a group of European Starlings I watched recently. A Cooper's Hawk approached the loosely flying flock. Immediately the flock of hundreds of birds took on the appearance of a distant thunder cloud—so tight you could not see a speck of light through it. No bird wanted to be on the outside of the cluster. Teamwork? Not hardly. It was every bird for itself. Someone on the outside was going to be Mr. Cooper's lunch, they were thinking, and it ain’t gonna be me!
So much for security in numbers, teamwork and all that group survival stuff. The question becomes, which, or what matters most?
Maybe the squirrels have it right--we're all in this alone.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Give ‘Em Leaves and Fishes

Getting a few hours on the stream is always a pleasure, even when the challenges make others think you’re nuts for going fishing. (Secret is, being a bit nuts helps.) Friday was crystal clear and so was the water in the Clearfork, a branch of the Mohican River known mostly to fly fishers and not many others. The wind was howling like it was Montana. The wind-chill made me think of Colorado.
I started at one of my favorite spots where I usually pick up a trout or three, then move on to someplace else. For whatever reason known only to the trouts, there always seems to be a brownie or a rainbow hanging around that particular stretch. And if I fished there all day I wouldn’t get more than two or three fish; a lesson I learned a few years back.
Since there were no fish rising and no bugs in the air, I defied the astronomical odds and tied on a size 16 Adams in hopes that some unsuspecting fish might be looking up. I know, a trout gets 80% or 90% of its diet from below the surface. There’s just something about catching a fish on a dry fly …
It took about 15 minutes for me to come to my senses and switch to pheasant tail nymph that would drift a few inches below the surface. After nearly an hour of casting and not catching (one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results), I began to wonder where my three fish had gone. I had been battling the wind, sort of letting it place my cast about every other toss. The result was hooking up with a leaf three out of four casts.
Further upstream is a gorgeous looking spot. Something you see in all the fly fishing magazines. The perfect bend. The perfect riffle leading to the perfect pool. In all my years of fishing this stretch of the river I’ve never caught a thing in that spot—yet I always give it a shot. It’s sort of like asking the prettiest girl in your high school class for a date. You know the answer before you ask, however, at least you’ve tried.
I studied the water as if I knew what I was looking for. The water was low, clear and choked with leaves. More leaves in the water than on the trees. I was about to head back to the car and another spot on the stream—but I just couldn’t. I bushwhacked my way up stream to get a half-decent angle on that good looking riffle that led to the perfect looking hole. On my third cast I hooked up with nice little brown trout. I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or the fish.
(Well, I thought, maybe she would have said yes had I asked her one more time some 45-odd years ago …)
I spent the rest of the windy afternoon working the spot as I never had in the past. Lots of leaves, too many for most fishers I suppose. And there was the occasional fish. All brownies with the largest stretched out to about 12 inches. There were the day dreams too—maybe the principal attraction of fly fishing. It lets you enter other worlds if only for a windy, blindingly bright afternoon in October in Ohio that will etch itself on the inside of your skull to become the daydream 20 years from now.

Friday, October 06, 2006

How Do Some People Get Their Jobs

Aside from your co-workers, but including your boss, do you ever wonder how some people get their jobs? I was being stuffed into a van at Midway Airport in Chicago this week for a thankfully short trip to McCormick Convention Center. While they were jamming one more body into the vehicle, our driver was giving us a preview of what was to come, based on telemetry she had gathered over years on the job. She told us to the tenth of a mile how far it was, how many minutes it would take at this hour and how many hours those same nine-point-whatever miles would take on Friday.
She recommended that if we were going to try to get out of town after 2:30PM on Friday that we pack a lunch. We would be stuck in traffic so bad it will bring tears to your eyes, she said. At least she had a sense of humor.
We zipped onto the highway and she bobbed and weaved between cars, doing things with a van that I wouldn’t attempt in a VW bug. One of the sales-types up front decided to do the employment interview thing with her. He asked, “So, do they give you drivers a lot of training for this job?”
“Not me,” said the driver. “I ran the bumper-car concession at Six Flags for about three years and I watch a lot of NASCAR on TV, so I guess they figured I knew what I was doing.”

Global Warning

It was a no-win argument. Global warming. And it was generated by a newscast running on a television set designed to intrude into your pores while standing in line to get on an airplane—a time when you’re wishing for something more relaxing than the day’s news.
I only got into it because I didn’t like the guy’s smarmy attitude. He was wearing a big, shit-eating grin, shaking his head at the newscaster as if she could see—or care. I just kind of smiled. I don’t think I really said anything. He must have sensed, however, that I agreed with Dr. Whatshername; global warming is a reality.
He started with, “You Democrates …” And that’s what lit my candle. I was off to the ozone before I knew what happened.
No such thing as global warming, he said. “You Democrats and the liberal news media are making the whole thing up because you can’t accept the simple fact that President Bush’s administration has been right on all its other issues. No evidence.”
Right is right I muttered. I had at least two strikes against me with this fellow who was able to make such great leaps in judgment he could probably go over buildings in a single bound. Why I even responded when I should have been working on the life-plan for my dress-sock drawer at home, I don’t know. Maybe I was hoping to make that one small step for mankind thing.
My fear, suddenly, was that he might want to sit next to me on the plane. (Hmmm. Nice doggy, nice doggy. Now, where’s that stick?)
I focused on his “no evidence” idea. Since we were into name calling (“You Democrats”) I figured melting glaciers might be too large of a concept for his pea-size brain. “The evidence,” I calmly said with hardly any spittle at the corner of my mouth, “is the smoking gun in the hands of insensitive, greedy company owners that’s been pointing at the sky for decades.”
(Oooo, that felt good.) I noticed a slight tic begin at the corner of his left eye. His lips were locked but they moved a bit. I bet he had been preparing for the iceberg gambit. (Follow the money stupid. Nothing happens without money attached to it. And the more you make the less you are to blame, or so it seems.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A New Way of Seeing

Birding in winter months is either tough in the extremis, or boring to tears. Our part of the world here in northeast Ohio offers little middle ground. Watching House Finches at the feeder every day is not exactly challenging. Feeling tears freeze to your face while standing on the shores of Lake Erie looking for gulls is more challenge than many people want.
Well, here’s a dimension to birding I suspect you’ve not tried. It offers an opportunity to see things you’ve not seen before. Or, more accurately, to see them in a different light. I call it astrobirding. Here’s how it works.
It so happens that winter months offer excellent opportunities for astrobirding. On nights with a full moon, or near-full moon, haul your spotting scope out and focus on the nearest astronomical object we have. If you have an eyepiece that gives you 30X magnification you’ll see sights you might not expect. Although looking at the moon before and after the midpoint of its near-monthly trip through the sky yields more exciting moon views, it’s when the moon is full that you have the best chance of spotting birds.
Actually, the moon’s not really full. It’s a half moon since we can’t see the backside, but that’s another story.
This time of the year, with clear, stable air, is ideal for astrobirding. Birds in the night sky drift overhead. Our nearest celestial neighbor makes the perfect backdrop. The next couple months provide us with some great opportunities. You’ll have about seven hours of full-moon time to stare through your scope and watch owls, swans, cranes, flights of ducks and whatever else might be slashing through the late-fall night sky. Check an almanac or your local paper for moon rise and set times. The next three months will be great because the moon rises in the late afternoon or early evening, perfect timing.
Birds crossing the face of the moon move fast, or so it seems. They appear more as impressions than actual sightings. When you see something, back away from the eyepiece, reflect on what you saw—or thought you saw—and take an educated guess.
Silhouettes, fleeting as memories. Elusive as dreams.
Any night, two or three nights on either side of the full moon work for astrobirding. In October we hit the full moon on the 6th. Toward the end of the month, on Halloween night, we have an eight-day moon, perfect for watching for witches on broomsticks. November 5th we might see some early flights of Tundra Swans, though they usually fly over later in the month when we have another good opportunity on the 30th. December offers some great opportunities. Full moon is on the 4th and a nearly full moon on the 31st. Great way to end one year and start another.
I keep watching and hoping for a loon.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Time Waits, Writers Waste

We’re getting into that ideal time of the year here in northeast Ohio. It’s a small space, wedged between humidity of summer and chills of winter. Since someone else chose the name we’re stuck with calling this season fall. Seems like a negative term for such an uplifting interval in the passage of time. Must have been named for the direction leaves travel, not spirits.
Yesterday was one of those glorious days when all the things I’ve been meaning to do didn’t seem so critical as they had a few months ago. Some duties seem plenty happy to be left alone in the been-meaning-to-do-that stage. Sunday was a day meant for a walk in the woods. I found myself with time to burn and time to bend. And when you live a quarter mile from a trailhead into a national park it’s easy to find ways to bend time.
When I’m hiking in the park I prefer the beaten path; beaten by white-tail deer, foxes and coyotes. Paths beaten by humans are another story. Sometimes, however, those paths intersect and lead to interesting conclusions, if not destinations.
With 90 minutes of hiking stuck to the bottom of my boots, I began looking for a log to sit on. Finding the perfect log to fit your butt is one of the essentials of hiking most people are not aware of. Then they put in a few hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail. There, your day starts by thinking of how long before you’ll stop for the night, your next meal or finding the perfect sitting log, not necessarily in that order.
The log I found was good news and bad news. It fit my butt, however, it was within earshot (but not eyeshot) of the all-purpose trail. All-purpose trail—as long as your purpose is to ride a bike wearing headphones and talk with six other people of varying distances from you. The guy that came up with that name—all purpose—is the same dude what named turnpikes freeways. We should rename them "without-purpose" trails. They’re a hazard to health and sanity. Sunday’s crowd looked like a non-motorized version of a NASCAR event.
Trying to make the worse of a good situation, I listened to what folks were saying as they zipped past. I’m proud to say not once did I try to accost anyone and tell them to stop and listen to the birds instead of their own fatuous drivel. Sorry if that’s redundant.
For 15 minutes I listened. Here are the results of my unscientific research. Probably half the conversations involved computers or doing something on, to, or with a computer. What does that say about us? Go to a park and talk about computers. Beam me up Scotty!
And a lot of those "conversations" were rants by one person or another about someone in their office, boss or underling, who was "totally, I mean guys, like totally," illiterate.
Another big batch were couples engaged in various depths of dispute. When folks are just zipping by you have to fill in some blanks. It seems that a number of conversations involved the man telling the woman she needed this or that piece of equipment for her bicycle. Meanwhile, she’s pedaling faster to get out of the sound of his voice. You go, girl.
I looked over at the two chipmunks who reluctantly shared their log with me and asked, "Why don’t these people sit down and dream about missing the bus to work tomorrow?"

Friday, September 29, 2006

Birder’s Nightmare

What’s a birder’s worse nightmare? Missing a plane connection from East Jesus Island back to the mainland and having to stay an extra day? Not hardly.
Paying a godzillion bucks for a once-in-a-lifetime trip only to discover it’s monsoon season when you arrive? Any day bad for flying is a good day for birding.
No. I think the thing we fear most is being alone and coming upon a totally out-of-place bird; or one that has been extinct since white men invaded the North American continent.
I rank this scenario just above being alone and finding a body stashed in the bushes of some remote park. I must say, the body thing used to really bother me. I often bird alone in places I’m unfamiliar with. Then the other day I crossed paths with a live, very live, alligator in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The Zen moment was that in most places, any body would have been recycled by the time I found it. Except for maybe the baseball cap part. This enlightenment, resolving the mystery of how caps (and maybe shoes) turn up in remote places, took my mind off finding bodies.
My out-of-place bird is a yet-to-be-resolved problem. I easily studied a number of small birds working the trees in front of the nature center at Loxahatchee NWR last Tuesday. The center was closed. Even had it been open no one could have found it if they followed the directions given on the center’s Web site. As for maps of Florida, they might as well have provided a map of Nebraska. The directions were more than 10 miles off from the closest intersection noted. But that’s another story.
The point is, I was alone—except for the birds. Oh, and the ‘gators. So, leaning against my car I was ticking off warblers like I was walking the boardwalk at Magee Marsh. This was too cool. The most brilliant Prairie Warbler I’ve seen since … well, in a long time; Black-throated Blue; Common Yellowthroat. Man, this was easy.
Hmmm, Hermit Thrush, that seems odd. Then the nightmare. I of course did not realize it was a nightmare until I woke up. It was one of those tiny, nondescript birds working in the deep shadows. I applied my best pishing techniques and out he popped to see what all the silly noise was about. Oooo, a Red-breasted Nuthatch! Wow, that’s great!
Then it hit me—like getting out of an air conditioned car into the 96-degree heat and humidity too high to measure: Boy, you are way too far south to see a Red-breasted Nuthatch, especially at this time of the year. I watched the bird flit about the branches and disappear into the dense south-Florida underbrush.
A quick look at my field guide brought me up short. No nuthatch, red, white, brown or pygmy was to be found here. I checked the Loxahatchee list. None, as in zero, found here.
Oh boy, now what? My 2K memory bank searched for what else, anything else, it could have been. All the obvious birds were eliminated because this bird looked like what it was. Maybe it’s some exotic that flew over from the Bahamas? Nothing in the field guide qualified. I’ve seen an albino Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and partially albino American Robin that drove me to hours of page turning in field guides. This bird, however, left no (or little) doubt.
When I got back to my room I shot an e-mail off to friend Mauri Peterson, president of the St. Pete (Florida) Audubon Society, describing my dilemma. She was stumped as well. (I’ll leave out the part where she called me a weenie because I complained about the incessant heat.) She posted the sighting for comment to the Florida birders’ hot line. Nothing I’ve received from the folks down there has yet to change my mind about what I saw.
The bright point in all of this is that I no longer have to lie awake at night wondering what will happen if (when) I encounter an out-of-place bird. Maybe I should sign up for one of those group trips searching the swamps of Arkansas, looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I have nothing to fear—now—but why chance doing it solo?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

And Why Not

Currently, birding for me is a pause; a break in the action of daily life. It’s the white space between the notes that define the music. It functions well in that capacity, particularly when I’ve been around folks who think wearing a tie can actually improve what you do or what you say.
These are the kinds of people who allow societal pressures define what they call a normal life. And they grow up to become corporate CEOs and the like. Maybe even lawyers and NASCAR drivers. I take pleasure in knowing I’ll never be burdened with unearned income, or tangled in the lines of golden parachutes. You only need a parachute when you’re on the way down, right?
So if you pass up a chance to play golf and talk more about what you’ve been talking about, incessantly, since you ate the quiche this morning, you’re suspect. And if you say you’re going birding, they look at you, not often straight on, but out of the corner of their eye. Their heads turn a bit, trying to assess the danger level. Flight or fight?
Yesterday I had just finished a speaking gig in West Palm Beach and was heading for Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and a few hours of birding. One of the conference attendees ambushed me in the lobby of the overly plush Breakers Hotel. I never saw him coming. His green cap with matching logo shirt and shorts proved to be great camouflage. He stood behind the potted plants used to make the inside of the place artificially look like the outside. Why do they do that, then go to great efforts to keep out the bugs and other creatures?
“Great talk this morning. Wanna join us for some golf?”
“Ah, thanks. Nope.”
“We’ve got room for one more. We’re playing on the Ocean (something) course this afternoon.”
They never listen to your first answer.
“No, thanks. I’m going birding.”
And there was that look. He wanted to be sure no one saw him talking with a birder—whatever that was, or is.
“Aaaa, like bird watching? Why would you want to go out in this heat [96 degrees] and watch birds?”
The greatest of all philosophical questions—why.
And it’s so easily answered with the greatest of all philosophical answers—why not.
I had a lot of smart-ass answers I could have used, such as, you’re going to go hit a little white ball around in this heat … That kind of stuff.
I’ve learned that just saying “why not” is usually enough. It gives the asker enough space to nod his head and slip away, feeling like he won the discussion, which is what it’s all about for these corporate-leader types—winning.
This guy didn’t cave. He hadn’t grappled to the top of his corporate heap by not knowing all the answers. “So, what do you expect to see out there?”
Hmmm. Was this an opportunity to educate, or just some dude passing time, waiting for a more likely golfing prospect?
Let’s educate, I thought. “Well, Loxahatchee is about the only place you can still find the endangered Snail Kite,” I said in my most pleasant, instructional tone of voice.
Oops, that did it. His eyes narrowed. He furtively glanced around, kind of bird-like. Still, he couldn’t let it go. “A bird called a snail?”
I could pull out the field guide … No, let’s quit wasting time. Go directly to smart-ass. “Nope. The bird is a kite. It eats snails. Apple snails, actually.”
Now he was cooked. He had to get in the last word, however. That’s what bosses do best. He knew he was dealing with someone who was loosely wrapped; potentially dangerous. “Ya know, none of those words make a bit of sense if you’re really talking about birds.”
I just grinned, raised my shoulders and bid him a tolerable day on the course.
He certainly made my day. So, maybe I bird to be able to have a bit of fun with corporate leaders.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Lot Can Happen Between Here and There

We were about half way between here and there, maybe 60 minutes outside of Baltimore flying to West Palm Beach. The flight attendant calmly asked for a doctor or medical person. Chimes dinged in a couple spots. I cranked my neck around to see what was happening.
Seems there was a woman in distress two rows back and across the aisle.
A young woman across the aisle from me, without hesitation, climbs over the two people next to her and gets to the woman in distress about the same time as another young woman from the back of the plane. Turns out the first is a nurse, an EMT, and the second a doctor.
In a case of life-imitating-art (at least what passes for art on television), or maybe it’s the other way around, the doctor had caught my eye while waiting on line for the flight. I think she had captured just about everyone’s eye. About 5’ 10”, blond and fresh off the pages of some fashion magazine. Now she looked like a new character for ER. (Sexist! ((Who said that?)))
The crew of the Southwest flight 881 is incredibly efficient. While a couple of the attendants work to get the aisle clear and the doc to the patient, another opens the first overhead bin and plugs in a special headset to talk with … ? Well, talk with someone, probably the pilot. She also has a diagramed yellow sheet with instructions and procedures to be followed. She gives a running commentary to someone, and now I have the feeling it’s someone with medical experience since she seems to be answering questions.
The doc is making a quick assessment. The nurse helping as they talk things through. The woman in distress is getting more so. The doc tells the flight crew to get the defibrillator handy. Just get it out. And she also says something with her eyes that I can’t understand.
Out comes the red bag and cords.
The doc calls for some orange juice as she tries to communicate with the patient. She doesn’t seem to be giving the doc the answers the doc wants.
Doc calls for oxygen and it’s there faster than I can type the word.
More orange juice. Aspirin? Aspirin.
More oxygen.
Patient’s looking better, but the doc wants everyone to hold their places.
A decision is made to move the woman up a half dozen rows to the front bulkhead seats. More space for the doc to work on her.
Looking better by the minute the doc says. Nurse and doc sit with her and comfort her. Lots of elderly people on this flight paying close attention.
These airplane people are good! No panic. The crew acts like it’s an everyday occurrence. I’ve been flying for 45 years and it’s the first time I’ve seen this.
Crew member writes down how much oxygen was consumed.
Smiles all ‘round. What looks like an exchange of names and addresses is going on! Lots of conversation, like they’re talking with a groggy prizefighter.
Doc stands to let the attendant climb on the seat and put the oxygen bottle back in its cradle. Doc flashes a killer smile to the guy who got on the plane with her.
He returns a knowing smile. Damned proud of you, he’s thinking. All in a day’s work, her eyes say.
Situation under control.
Then the grumbling about slow service starts. And just when I thought the human race might be worth saving …

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Fishing for Stripers

Fishing for striped bass (sorry, all you guys who Googled a similarly spelled word hoping to see scantly clad women) is always a treat and like-new experience for us fresh-water fly fishers.
I’m just finishing a four-day trip to the ever-changing scenic Cape Ann area of Massachusetts, where the end of the striper migration is happening. These big-shouldered fish are heading south for a while, some as far as Florida.
The fish I got into are referred to as “schoolies.” I don’t know why they carry that tag, however, it’s what the locals call the little guys. Little, in this case is a relative term. Most of the fish I landed (the biggest one got away, honest!) were in the range of 18 inches to 20 inches and weighed in around three or four pounds.
As a trout fisher, that’s getting close to record size, and if you’re a trout fisher from Cleveland, steelhead excluded, a 20-inch, four-pound fish is enough of an excuse to call off going to work on Monday.
The schoolies here were great fighters (as any of us would be with a hook in our jaw) and all were returned to the ocean, traumatized I’m sure, but no worse the ware. One fish in particular is telling an unbelievable tail to its buddies. It was the second fish I caught yesterday. I was playing it for a few minutes (Playing is the human’s term; fish, I’m sure call it something else. You really can’t call fishing a sport since the opponents don’t know they’re even in a game.) and I began to see it flashing a red color. I knew it wasn’t blood and thought I had hooked up with some other species.
I landed the fish and discovered it had a huge artificial lure stuck in its jaw. The lure was fuchsia-colored creature and about 10-inches long, equipped with more hooks than a small tackle shop.
I carefully got the hooks, mine included, out of the fish’s mouth and put the confused creature back into the ocean. It waved good-by as it sped off to tell a tale of capture, rescue and release.
Hmmm. Same story as I’m telling.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Seesawing of the Seasons

Summer’s running on empty. From 38,000 feet above the surface of Planet Earth, it’s easy to see the changes when you head west and back to the future. By the time I arrived in Salt Lake City I was only an hour late for lunch, which I had eaten in Chicago a couple hours before, which was an hour earlier than it was in Cleveland. Or something like that.
But above it all the changing colors dominate the landscape and your mind. Ohio, from that altitude still has an attitude of green—mossy green, but green nonetheless. There are the occasional punctuation marks of orange and red, reminding us that the sentence has to come to an end. The unsure yellow spots seemed more like question marks.
Iowa this day was decidedly tan, punctuated by a bit of gray here and there. Few and far between were barns, water towers and other evidence of human habitation. Gray/brown was the color today in Iowa and will be the color in Cleveland in the future. Thank goodness for Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays.
As we moved over the mountains in Colorado it was suddenly white, bright white with fresh snow capping the rocks. Lower down was the bumpy grayish brown of last season’s leftovers, not unlike that piece of meatloaf you found in the back of the fridge last week.
And on to Utah. More incredible shades of tan and gray and again, snow. Lots of snow. It was Cleveland’s future. Well, okay, minus the mountains.
I made a quick three-hour trip out the Antelope Island State Park, located in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. I was amazed to see snow floating on the water as far as I could see. Through my binoculars I discovered it was not snow. It was more American Avocets than I ever dreamed were on the planet! Tens of thousands of them, all virtually in basic plumage. As far as I could see, and here I think you can safely measure the distance in miles, were avocets. I pulled out the scope (Why we need confirmation of what we already know remains a mystery to me.) and the view, distorted by a shortening of perspective, was even more spectacular.
When the ranger walked up to me and asked if I was going to pay my $9 entry fee I jokingly said, “I think I’ve seen the whole show already.”
She looked at the avocets as I do European Starlings and said, “Well, the big flock is at the West end of the causeway.” Yikes!
She was about half right. The flock at the end of the causeway was enormous, however, what made it seem larger was that tens of thousands of the birds in the flock were Black-necked Stilts! Here the massive white covering of the lake was punctuated with black of their necks and backs.
I figured I had already squeezed more than my $9 out of this place, however I should drive around to see if there were any bonus birds about. Mid-September is the nadir of the birding season in this part of the West. I got lucky. A Burrowing Owl who should have been on his way south played peek-a-boo with me until he figured I was less of a threat than the Northern Harrier who kept passing overhead. His golden eyes, the color of the turning aspen leaves in the mountains behind him, stared at me, never blinking. We chatted a bit about the changing season, going to Mexico for some warmer weather and did I think the global warming thing would change his migration patterns. Birds of the feather ...
By the time I arrived at Park City, my destination, most of the snow had melted. It hung on in places hiding from the sun. The mountains at 6,700 feet were awash in golden aspen leaves and snow. The air up here is so clean you can’t even see what you’re breathing. Just like Cleveland will be in a couple months. Well, maybe not exactly, however it was a nice preview of coming attractions.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

For a Better America

When President Bush calls to ask me what’s needed to get this country back on track, I’m ready. It occurred to me this morning, while waiting for the bus in a torrential downpour, that what this country needs is not a really good five-cent cigar, as the forgettable Thomas Riley Marshall, vice president from 1913 to 1921, said, but a mandatory walk in the woods. (As an aside, Marshall’s other great line was, "Indiana is the mother of vice presidents, home of more second-class men than any other state.")
An annual three-day backpacking trip should be a requirement for U.S. citizenship, right up there with a mandatory driver’s license re-exam every three years—and a five-year suspension of all NASCAR events and merchandise sales.
What prompted the thought was all the grousing by my bus-buddies, and all the crap we carry just to get through the day in a dry office.
I’ve done about 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail over the years, and numerous other hikes and camps. Out there (where ever "there" happens to be) you carry all you need for a week or so on your back. Everything. You learn if you get wet, you’ll dry. If you get hungry, you’ll fix something to eat. You won’t need newspapers because what happens doesn’t really matter and effects you even less.
All you really need to survive is on your back and in your pockets. If you need entertainment you stop to examine the bark of a tree. You stand still, stare at the ground and bust your brain trying to remember a bird’s song. You talk with people you’ll never see again so you’re free to tell the truth. Danger is not some druggie in a car, it’s your imagination: Was that a bear or a crazed Wild Turkey? Oh, another hiker taking a pee.
A backpacking trip brings life down to it’s most basic common denominators. At the end of the trip you swear you’ll never do it again. Two weeks later, hassling an umbrella, coffee cup, lap top computer case and deadlines, you start planning next year’s hike. It makes you focus on what matters most, something that’s missing from most political agendas.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Her Name is Luna

Some days are not meant for working. Today is one such.
6:28AM. Dark. Head north to the bus stop. Challenges of the office tax my brain.
6:30AM. Moon-roof open. Dylan crooning on the CD player. Zip across the architecturally spectacular bridge that spans the Cuyahoga River. Helps us commuters sail through the air along Route 82. Cleveland, if not in my sights, is in my mind.
6:31AM. There hangs the moon—just hours past its full stage. Closing in on apogee in a couple of weeks. Only 238,855 miles away today. I could reach out and touch her. We measure her orbit against the stars. Humans try to do the same with themselves. Our future is in the stars.
6:32AM. Now is when I need to run out of gas. Maybe a flat tire. Please Ra! Grant me this one wish and I’ll never again … Luck is not with me. More unanswered prayers.
6:33AM. The river, somewhere down there 145 feet below, looks like it’s smokin’. I’m a wishin’ and a hopin’. If this is not the top of the world, I can, at least, see the top of the world from here.
6:33.5AM. Luna’s golden buttery color belies her minus-387-degree- and maximum-253-degree temperatures.
6:34AM. Who decided it was a "man" in the moon, then gave it a feminine name? Sorry Luna, white guys rule—or at least they used to—which is how we got to where we are.
6:34.5AM. Summer’s over. You want the world to just let you be. Let the fog wrap you in its coolness. Cool sheets. Whispered good-byes.
6:35AM. A flock of geese honking. Heading south. No! It’s the line of cars behind me. Forming the letter I, not the letter V. Follow.
6:35.5AM. Some day I’ll learn to read lips in the rearview mirror. For today, however, I’m going to work on my internal compass; contemplate an attitude adjustment and figure a way to break Luna’s gravitational pull to achieve an escape velocity of 5,324 miles per hour.
6:36AM. Or, maybe I'll do that tomorrow.

Friday, August 25, 2006

It’s Never Just an Owl

Last night I was awakened at 1:00 AM by the mesmerizing voice of a Great Horned Owl. I had to wake Susan since owls are her favorite species. This bird was right outside our bedroom window, later discovered in the tamarack tree.
It sang for about 15 minutes, then stopped. It returned for an encore performance about 5:30 AM. This time it opted for the copper beach, also right outside our bedroom window. Later in the morning, after the sun was up, I saw the bird fly from the tamarack with only a quick glance over its shoulder as it headed for the national park to its left.
The great thing about owl songs is that they’re so easy to remember. When you live in an area that has only four species of owls, it makes it even easier. Yet, there’s something magical, haunting and to some folks frightening about the owl.
It’s interesting that here in America, maybe I should say Western cultures, we view the owl as “wise.” Other cultures find the owl as varied as the cultures themselves. No other bird species has drawn global and historical significance like the owl.
Native American religions use the owl a lot. The Cree believe the whistle-sounds of a Boreal Owl are a summoning call to the spirit world. If an Apache dreamed of an owl, it was thought death was on the way. This is a similar belief to Native Americans in the Northwest and Alaska. Cherokee tribes consulted Eastern Screech-Owls on punishment and sickness. Other practitioners of Native American spiritual traditions claim the owl represents vision and insight.
In the culture of the Hopi tribes, a number of taboos surround owls. The birds are associated with evil sorcery. Possession of owl feathers is considered an indication of witchcraft.
Hinduism uses the owl as a symbol of cosmic spirituality.
To the Bantu natives in Africa, the owl is thought of as a friend of the wizards. In Eastern Africa, tribes believe owls bring illness to children. Zulus in Southern Africa regard the owl as a bird of sorcerers. Other tribes in the western parts of Africa consider the bird a messenger for wizards as well. In Madagascar it is believed that owls gather with witches to dance on the graves of the dead.
Ancient Egyptians used an owl representation for their hieroglyphs. They would draw an owl hieroglyph with its legs broken to keep the bird of prey from coming to life.
It used to be, in Japanese cultures, the owl was a symbol of death. Seeing one was considered a bad omen. Times change, however. Currently, the bird is considered a bird of luck.
In India, a white owl is considered the companion of the goddess of wealth. It’s a harbinger of prosperity.
In Greek mythology, the owl, and specifically the Little Owl, was often associated with the Greek goddess Athena—a bird goddess if there ever was one—who often assumed the form of an owl. She was also the goddess of wisdom, art and skill. That’s probably how owls became symbols of learning.
Susan and I just love to hear them hoot, even at 1:00 AM.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Voyage of Discovery

I’ve been reading a lot about Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery this past year. Maybe devouring is a better word. After reading a plethora of books I decided to go to the source and this summer have been working through the journals of Lewis, Clark and others whose notes on that great adventure of 1804-06 survive.
It’s fascinating to read the daily musings, rants and descriptions from these adventurers. Since they lacked spell checkers in those days (or even dictionaries) it’s slow reading. That slowness, however, lets you savor their moments of terror, starvation and discovery.
Their listings of birds previously not seen or described by white men are intriguing. Because the journals where not published for nearly 100 years after they returned (and that’s another fascinating story) many of the birds they named, now carry different names. (As any academician will tell you, it’s not who makes the discovery, it’s who publishes first that gets the credit.) Here’s Meriwether Lewis’ jottings from 1805 while sitting in soaking clothes in a leaky hut in Oregon: “… a small Crow, the blue crested Corvus and the smaller Corvus with a white brest, and the little brown ren, a large brown sparrow, the bald Eagle and the beatifull Buzzard of the columbia still continue with us.”
Some we can figure out: Steller’s Jay, Winter Wren, California Condor (which they ate); others we can only wonder about.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Mystery of the Barking Dog

Every morning as Bill (his real name) walked to his commuter train he heard a barking dog. It was always in the same spot, deep in a wooded patch not far from his house. Only this dog barked unlike any he had heard. And it was so regular you could almost set your watch by it. There were times when he heard it in the evenings, around dusk. He determined it was some sort of time or motion activated mechanical device the homeowner used to frighten off deer, or burglars, since they do about equal damage.
Then the other evening he and his wife, Kate (also her real name) went for a walk. Right on schedule the dog started barking, thus proving to his wife that while he might occasionally hear voices in his head, barking dogs were for real.
Kate quickly analyzed the situation and noted that it was an owl hooting, not a dog barking.
These folks do not consider themselves birders. (They’re hooked, they just don’t know it yet.) They are computer savvy so when they got home they did the modern-birder thing and headed straight for the information highway. That’s where I come into this scene. Bill (a real co-worker) told me (office resident all-things-nature-guy) about a great Web site he found,, where you not only see great photos of virtually every owl species, you can click on a button and listen to the vocalizations, often the key identifier when determining which owl is hooooo.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bringing the Outdoors In

I must be a magnet, maybe lightning rod is a better term, for people who want to tell nature-related stories. For example, this morning a co-worker launched into a story about a bat that got into his house last night. And there was no stopping him. Had I dropped to the floor in the middle of the story, I honestly believe he would have finished the tale, then called 911.
Anyway, the story is not all that good, but I did find a grain of education that might be valuable to others should they find themselves in a similar situation.
I’ll leave out the profanity and words of panic that always accompany bats-in-the-house stories. This fellow realized that trying to catch the bat in a net, or waving ones arms at the critter would be of little value. What he did was grab a blanket from the bed and held it up, creating a “wall” for the bat’s sonar. The problem was, each time he maneuvered the bat closer to the open window, he lowered the blanket to check the bat’s position. Right, the bat then flew over the blanket back into the room.
His tactic eventually (two hours later) worked. He says, in thinking the whole process through, he would have done two things differently: He would not have let his wife play the role of terrified supervisor, quick to give him advice but of no help otherwise; and he would have used a see-through shower curtain.
Sound advice.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

It’s the Little Things that Count

I heard someone in the office use that quasi-Biblical phrase: It’s the little foxes that ruin the vineyard. I was thinking about that in comparison with friend Wendy’s blog ( and the joy she manages to find in teaching nature to kids—little foxes all. Then I began contrasting Wendy’s ideas with the cliché of seeing the world through a child’s eyes and how it relates to my new-found role as grandpa.
I’m learning. Taking a walk with a four-year-old does open one’s eyes, that’s for sure. There’s an excitement in kids most people over 48-inches-tall have long gotten over—or forgotten. Our grandson picks up what I might think of as trash and tells me it’s material for his art project. Of course it is. He asks who or what; all the while my adult brain is trying to forget all the strangers I’ve met. Wendy’s kids learn that owls eat bones, then get off on the fact that their mothers would throw up if they knew that fact. How cool is that?
When we get to be adults, where’s our wonder? Most of us don’t even wonder about that name at the bottom of our pay check. Who is that person? We don’t care; only that the check arrives.
We don’t want to dream. We want the night to leave us alone. As writer Edward Abbey said, old men have guilty dreams. And writer/singer Patty Griffin says "Night only wants to kiss you deep and be on his way; pretend he don’t know you the very next day."
As Wendy frequently notes, nature can drive you to your knees. I thought that was kind of hokey. Now I get it. If we get down to that four-year-old’s eye level we’ll begin to see things as they really are—or the way they could (should) be.
And those little foxes? They’re just doing their fox thing. If losing a few grapes is a problem for you, get out of the whine business.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Things Happen in Threes

A co-worker was bemoaning something disastrous that had happened at her house this past weekend—hot water tank implosion or something. What caught my ear was that this was the third such trauma for her in as many days. I don’t put a lot of stock in that business of movie stars dying in threes, etc.
A couple nights ago we heard lots of scratching and squeaky noises along with something being banged around on our deck. We peered through the blind to see three young raccoons reenacting the World Cup Championships, using an empty whicker basket. There was a fair amount of head-butting going on, too.
Then last night we heard some scratching sounds near the bird feeders. With the aide of a flashlight we watched three young skunks dining on that expensive stuff that’s supposed to repel critters like skunks and raccoons. With this trio there was a lot of butt-butting which I feared might lead to something less pleasant than the smell of victory or agony of de feet. We cranked the windows shut and turned on the air conditioner.
And this morning, Susan calls me away from my delicious bowl of oatmeal and Kim Perez on the Weather Channel to see the final threesome. The raccoons had returned. Soccer, err, football, was not on the agenda. Today it was high-wire acrobatics. Larry, Curley and Mo had climbed the pole holding our feeder array. All were swinging from the feeders, acting like break-dancers trying to outdo each other with ever more elaborate moves. About the time Mo was going into his hand-stand head-spin I rushed out, doing my best imitation of a pterodactyl.
The crowed roared as the guys flipped, twisted and basically fell all over each other trying to get down.
No curtain call attempted. They dashed under the deck where, I’m afraid, they will eventually meet up with Huey, Dewy and Pewy. We can hardly wait for the time all six to provide act number four, which, when divided by eight hours of restless sleep, will equal yet another three.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Some—Not Many—Like It Hot

The temperature bumped its head against 95 degrees here in Cleveland today. Second day in a row. Al Gore’s right—we’re all toast.
I was looking at the birds in the yard, from the safety of my air conditioned house, and it was like watching a silent movie. Their beaks were flapping but there was no sound. I stepped out on the deck to see what a pair of crows, in particular, were so agitated about. Still no sound. Chickadees on the rim of the bird bath were active, mouths open, but no sound.
Ah, heavy breathing. Had to be the heat. Since they can’t sweat they must have been trying to get cool by venting heat through their mouths. I tried it and it didn’t work. In fact it made me sweat more.
So I decided to take an unscientific poll while on my bike ride. I noted all the birds I saw and whether they were singing. The grand total was 13 species. Some I could not tell if the mouth was open—like red-tailed hawks and great blue herons. Of those I could see, only two species were singing like they really enjoyed the sauna: indigo buntings and American goldfinches.
So the obvious scientific conclusion is that less than 10 percent of the birds in northeast Ohio enjoy this muggy buggy weather—about the same ratio as humans.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Living In a Time Warp

Birthdays, mine or those of people near to me, have a way of making me think I’m living in a time warp. Or, maybe they just make me think more about the span of time. Or, maybe it’s that time does not always seem to be flowing in the right direction. Well, that’s not it either. Time is not taking as much time to happen as it used to.
Here, let me explain. Just the other day the kid around the corner was having a graduation party. School’s out! That sort of thing. Then two days ago I walked into a local store and the shelves are groaning under the weight of “Back to School Specials.” What happened to summer?
Friday a friend invited me to fish at his private trout club. This is the kind of place guys like me can only dream of. Or, never dream of. Rockwell Springs Trout Club was established in 1900 and little has changed. Or maybe a lot has changed. I viewed the old photographs on the wall. The guys don’t wear white shirts and ties to go fishing. There were more women on the stream—none wearing long dresses, however. But when I stepped onto the immaculately cared for grounds, I felt like I was stepping into one of those pictures. The stream was the stream. The fish were the fish—maybe a bit smaller. It was a strange feeling. As my friend pointed out, never lose track of the thought that this [fly fishing at the club] is not real. I knew what he meant, yet, when hooked into a feisty brook trout, it seemed real enough.
And on Saturday evening we attended a friend’s birthday party. It was one of those birthdays that ends in 0, which can be tough on people. Among the guests were those philosophers who bemoaned the lost years, those looking forward to new things, and those sort of neutral and accepting of another year gone by.
In the end, the birthday signifies, no matter whether life is fast or slow, confusing or simple, boring or challenging, expensive or rewarding, it does include one free trip around the sun each year.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Messing With Mother Nature

There's a new housing development being built a few miles from our place. According to the signs it's going to be a swanky place. You've seen the ads, "Starting in the low $zillions$." That kind of stuff.
There had been an old house back in there before they started raping the land. The place was so wooded I didn't even know the house was there until they started ripping down the trees. This housing project will probably have some fancy name like Forests Forever. They scraped off all the topsoil so they can buy it back before they plant the lawns that will look like golf greens. They'll replant non-native species of trees in some monoculture that was never supposed to exist. Developers love to correct obvious errors nature has made.
But tonight we had a deluge. It rained as hard as I’ve ever seen it, except for a few years ago in Hong Kong when I watched in rain more than 16 inches in as many hours. That was scary. Today's storm was bad enough. Major flooding throughout the northeast Ohio area. When I stepped off my bus I could not see the street. Water, on a major thoroughfare was as high as the first step.
I got to my car, looking like the proverbial drowned rat and headed for home. Ooops, the road was blocked. Emergency flashers of various colors told the tale--no getting through that way. And that way was the only way I could go.
I waited in the parking lot of the strip mall, calling people on my cell phone in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear. Mostly I got laughs and "Wow. Must be bad." And comments referring to my mental powers and coming in out of the rain.
Finally the rain backed off, as did the rushing water. Through my binoculars I could see the cops were letting SUVs and trucks swim through the flood. Finally they let us little guys through. I was trying to figure how that particular dip in the road created such a flood. The water should have just drained into a creek that feeds into the river far below. This is the edge of a ravine, I thought.
Then I saw the problem. The huge scar on the land; the bald spot the construction people had created, when they chopped down all the trees and replaced a deer track with a ribbon of cement. It had all been had washed away. They had created the perfect, dehydrated landslide. All it need was for someone to add water. The huge mud slide that trees could have easily controlled, plowed the land, ripped up the man-made path, fancy signs and all. Even some construction equipment was washed nearly into the road.
I'll have to drop the developer a note and tell him to rename the spot "Mudslide Gulch." Seems more appropriate, now, however his marketing folks might not go for it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Blowin’ in the Wind

The other day I thought I’d extend my lunch hour a bit and visit the new Bob Dylan exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s one of the few advantages of working in downtown Cleveland. It was a gorgeous day. As I approached the Rock, I noticed the newly installed wind turbine at the Great Lakes Science Center (next door neighbor of the Rock) was up and spinning.
I’ve seen these monsters at a distance elsewhere. This opportunity to see one up close and personal was too tempting.
The turbine needs a breeze of 8 mph to get cranking. In a wind of 31 mph it hits its peak output of 225 kilowatts—enough juice to power 300 refrigerators. At 56 mph the turbine has the good sense to shut itself down so it won’t be damaged. This one will provide about seven percent of the science center’s electrical needs.
As an environmentalist I have mixed emotions about these wind-powered electric generators. First, there are the aesthetics of the three-armed monsters and the blight on the landscape. And second, there are the birds that run into them.
This Vestas V27 model weighs more than 26 tons. Its total height is about 150 feet—60 feet taller than the science center and 13 feet short of the Browns stadium, its neighbor to the west. Each blade is 44 feet long.
I expected to be blasted by wind and noise as I walked beneath the spinning blades. Hmmm. Nearly dead silence. Traffic noise was more of a distraction. And there was no wind. No smoke. No one upping the price of anything with plastic numbers on a plastic sign. Nothing was being spilled on the ground. Nothing but sunshine, blue skies and the wind ruffling my hair.
Okay, maybe aesthetics aren’t an issue. I looked at this thing as a big piece of sculpture and it fit within the parameters of my definition of art.
I held my breath as two ring-billed gulls and a couple of rock pigeons prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and headed for the spinning blades. All the birds veered off within 25 feet.
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History will be doing bird studies at the site. According to the folks at the science center, it’s unlikely bird deaths will exceed even one percent of those from other human-related sources—including house cats, buildings and autos. It seems the issue of bird deaths from collisions with wind turbines is site specific.
Cleveland Public Art has commissioned artists Allan and Ellen Wexler to create a permanent educational art installation surrounding the wind turbine.
I like the idea of clean energy. I don’t know how long the payback will be on this project, however it looks like a good deal for Cleveland and maybe elsewhere. Clean, renewable sources of power make a lot of sense. Why not use this technology where we can? Makes one wonder how many other kinds of clean energy this country could create if it wasn’t pouring sand down so many rat holes thought to contain oil.
To my knowledge, no lives were lost in the creation of the energy generated by this wind turbine. No press disinformation has been issued about weapons of mass deception. You look up at the clean white lines of the wind turbine cranking out energy and possibilities with every spin. And you can’t help but recall that famous Dylan line, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Some Trip

Road trip! Nothing like a road trip when you know the destination and opt to take a different path to get there. That’s what we did; Susan and I flying down the highway like a couple of low-level Canada geese. Wingtips barely touching. We were honking out Elvis tunes, caring less about the words than the rhythm. Mid-seventies and sun shining so bright we wore sunglasses dark enough that people thought we worked for Homeland Security.
Blue sky above. Mountains ahead. Trees and streams below. Birds all around zipping out of our path. White-tailed deer stopped by the sides of the road to gauge our progress. They had that look in their eyes like humans just told their jobs had just been outsourced to China.
The alarm startled me and I realized it was Monday morning. What a drag. Mondays must be god’s punishment for an enjoyable weekend. Where’s the damned oatmeal?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Attack of the Wild Coyotes

Living on the edge of a national park has its advantages and its moments. You accept the challenge of wild white-tailed deer eating your hostas (and anything else that’s green) and wild cotton-tailed rabbits threatening whatever the deer miss. There’s an occasional encounter with the wild skunk you’ll laugh about five years from now when the smell finally gets out of your house, and the clever raccoons seeking a sweet-treat who manage to wreck havoc on your hummingbird feeders.
The payback is an occasional over-flight by a pair of majestic bald eagles, or witnessing the mating ritual of wild turkeys in an open field. Nothing like uninhibited sex in the early morning to stop traffic.
Last night we had about the best nature can offer in this part of the land. It started at 1:45 AM. A single, distant winnowing howl woke me. At first I thought it was the Eastern screech-owl. I was hoping, at least, because we’ve not heard them this spring and fear the urban sprawl has driven more of these essential predators further afield.
I sat bolt upright as the winnowing rose to a more fevered pitch. The single voice was joined in chorus by another soprano and a couple of altos doing the harmony parts. The rhythm section came alive and soon the whole pack was yipping, barking and crooning to some primeval—make that atavistic—melody. Coyotes! It sounded like all the coyotes in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park had arrived for a sing-along outside our condo. Actually the number was probably closer to six. And the coyote’s cry can have a ventriloquist’s bent to it, making you think they’re in one spot when actually they’re 180 degrees the other direction.
It’s intriguing how the primal, quavering cry of the coyote evokes an equally tingling sensation of primitive danger in humans. When the animal finally emits its short, high-pitched yips, you realize you’ve been holding your breath and begin to relax. The hair on your arms settles down and you stop clinching your teeth. Only then, when you realize you’re safe from attack (they have more to fear from us than we do of them), do you really listen to what this little wolf, as its name from the Aztec language suggests, has to say.
Howling coyotes usually do so in two seasons; January and February when searching for a mate (they mate for life), and September and October when the mother is calling her young and they answer back in unison.
So what was this pack howling about in mid-June? Just for fun, probably. Bunch of guys leaving the watering hole late at night who felt like howling; your basic animal stuff.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Close Encounter

We had a close encounter with nature at our place this weekend. For the uninitiated it was one of those things fraught with peril. For a former amateur bee keeper is was like looking at an old photo album, stashed away in a box and only vaguely remembered.

We were sitting on the deck mid-afternoon on Saturday, trying to figure ways to avoid all the things that needed doing and that we've been putting off. I heard traffic noises, which was unusual since our condo sits back a decent distance from the road. I said something brilliant, like, "I know that's traffic I'm hearing, however if I didn't know better I'd say it was bees swarming."

Sure enough, it was a honey bee swarm; thousands of them, almost right over head. As a bee keeper I had witnessed bee swarms many times. Always with mixed emotions. The bad news is, as that swarm leaves your hive, the bee population, thus honey production, is greatly reduced. The good news is that this is the manner in which bees naturally reproduce and expand their species for their critical role in the grand scheme of things.

I have no idea where this lot came from. They were feral, probably, and looked healthy. We watched them settle into a safe spot in a decorative cherry tree. Thousands of bees surrounding their newly anointed queen while the scout bees went looking for a suitable hive spot. It was getting dark and cool and damp so I knew the bees would sit tight for the night.

Morning dawned with clouds and rain. The bees had settled down and I was a bit concerned that if the scouts did not find a hive spot soon, and the sun did not warm things up so these ladies could start finding nectar, this swarm might be in trouble. They stayed in place all day until late afternoon when the sun broke through the drizzle and clouds.

Unfortunately we missed the leaving. I checked on them and everything was as it had been; an hour later they were gone. The arrival of a swam appears about as disorganized as anything you can imagine; thousands of bees flying in every direction. The departure is the opposite. As if of a single mind, the bees fly off in a solid cloud, the destination whispered to the queen in some bee-like manner by the scouts.

I Guess I Shouldn't Ask

Recently, while making a hasty retreat toward home following a multi-tasked trip to Lexington, Kentucky (that included too-little fishing), we passed a camper-trailer being pulled by a gas-hog SUV. I looked at the contraption this family was hauling, and would probably tell friends they use for camping.

The trailer unit was one of those pop-up things. After it's all settled and leveled on its cement pad in some ghetto of a campground, they crank it up, plug in the electric, get the kids watching television and then--the part I really don't understand--turn on the air conditioner. This thing had an air conditioner on its roof. Think about it: If you're going camping, isn't the outside, unconditioned air what you're after? And on the practical side of the issue: If it has canvas sides, you obviously have to seal the windows and doors. But then doesn't that conditioned air leak through the canvas and pollute the unconditioned air? And wouldn't the sound blot out the singing of the birds?

What we need is a new word for "camping" that applies only to these folks with "campers." Their definition of the activity is too divergent from mine and I'm kind of stingy when it comes to sharing definitions.

In Defense of Pigeons

Pigeons--rock pigeons--need a good PR person. Maybe we should have kept the name, rock dove. Sounds more peaceful. Granted, occasionally while doing what comes naturally, a pigeon's course will intersect with human's in a manner humans would not prefer. Everyday, however, we stand in their food dish and should be prepared to pay the consequences--and the dry cleaning bills.

A co-worker came back from lunch the other day, justifiable upset about "those rats with wings" that had pooped on her fashionably correct blouse. Summer had finally made its arrival in Cleveland so it was time to shed dark blues and greys we usually wear and get out the pinks and yellows in her case.

I thought this might be a good opportunity to give a biology lesson and strike a blow for my avian friends. When you start by saying, "Rats don't have wings ..." and then move on to, "They're just scavengers, you know, so if we ..." you immediately loose your audience.

Later that day, out of the eyeshot of co-workers, I took a look at the infinite variety of colors and patterns in pigeons. They are really attractive birds. If they lived in the woods we birders would get sweaty palms trying to identify them. However, since they live in the city we choose to ignore and degrade them, like many other things in the city.

So when those multitudes of rock pigeons get their act together and hire a good PR agent, I suggest her first duty should be to designate a "Take A Pigeon To Lunch Day." They seem to like to do lunch.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Bugs and Birds

Fly fishers and birders have a lot in common. One thing is that we go on vacations, or enjoy days, when there are an abundance of bugs around. Earlier this week in Cleveland we had one of those days. Since I couldn’t be fishing, I made the most of birding. It was one of those days in May when we get an enormous hatch of insects out of Lake Erie. Not being an entomologist I’m not sure what the creatures are—other than abundant. People call them everything—some names not suitable for a family blog.
They’re called midges, muckleheads and pains-in-the-butt. Birds call them lunch. My office window was covered with them so I knew the birding would be good. At noontime I headed to a nearby green space. I stood in one spot and watched one tree. Along with the usual suspects, I had 16 other species of birds. Notable among these was a single brown thrasher, 41 blackpoll warblers, two black-throated blue warblers, three chestnut-sided warblers, three veerys, two hermit thrushes, seven Baltimore orioles, two orchard orioles, six ovenbirds and more. Sorry no partridge, but then it was a sycamore, not a pear tree.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Busy is as Busy Does

There we were, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball (well, not exactly) with a wild beast. Its dark shape loomed directly in our path. Susan and I were literally stopped on our tracks—sort of. Its beady eyes occasionally glanced at us; assessing us as a potential meal I figured. We, in turn, were more curious than terrified.
Without saying a word we glanced at each other when the creature flashed its orange-stained incisors. They were huge! Yet, here was this magnificent animal, chocolate-colored fur gleaming in the twilight, quietly coming to dinner. How did it maintain such a wonderful coat on a diet of dandelions?
What did it see when it took our measure? We watched the animal glide effortlessly through the wetlands pond. This is a favorite spot of ours in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, walking along the railroad tracks just north of Station Road Bridge. From the tip of the animal’s rounded muzzle, back nearly to its undersized ears, it was covered with duckweed. The neon-green colored weed contrasted with the brown fur, giving the animal an other-worldly appearance.
It maneuvered to the pond’s edge. It was now less than 25 feet away. We held our breath. Prothonotary warblers and red-headed woodpeckers darted about, vying for our attention. As it emerged from the water its size astonished us. This guy was at the upper end of its species-average (30-inches long and 40 pounds) for North America.
As the beaver slowly munched on the vegetation, I could not help but think about the boys with Lewis and Clark from the Corps of Discovery. Numerous mentions are made in diaries from that adventure describing how tasty the beaver’s tail was. To me, it looked like a deflated automobile tire—21st Century thinking I suppose.
Occasionally the beaver raised on its haunches to its full height and looked at us. What did it see? Two bipeds, one mostly blue with a flesh-colored topknot; the other purple and blue with a black topknot. Did it care to separate male from female? Both aliens would appear to have huge eyeballs, perfectly round and cylindrical in shape, black in color.
The beaver watched us; we watched the beaver. It didn’t care; we were enthralled. Eventually it made its way back into the pond. It cruised about 15 feet and stopped for dessert of moss and bark from a tree stump. Maybe the most fascinating part of this close encounter of the furred kind was that as the beaver removed the bark from the tree, it made no noise. We had expected, having seen numerous piles of chips around beaver-felled trees, that it would make plenty of chopping sounds. Woodpeckers of all species—particularly pileated—sound like thunderstorms compared with this guy.
It seemed to pry the bark from the tree, making an eight-inch diameter shield-like design. Then, off it meandered toward some raucous Canada geese, hardly living up to its billing—busy as a beaver.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Heat Impacts the Brain

A break in the business action gave me a free afternoon in the Orlando area. Wildfires prevented me from heading for the beach area so I opted for some inland birding at Kissimmee Lake State Park, twice selected (and the only facility to receive the honor) as the nation’s most admired state park.
It’s a cool place. Well, cool in the sense that it’s hot. Err, hot meaning heavily frequented. On this day in early May, it was hot in the sense of temperature, actually, not people. In fact, I saw few other humans in the park. I guess the 94-degree temperature with humidity off the charts kept the slugabeds in their air conditioned houses and cars. Only truly dedicated birders, three of us, were out there pishing in the bushes.
As I approached the entrance to the park I was welcomed by a pair of sandhill cranes with two juveniles. The little ones were 25% body and 75% legs. Young sandhill cranes look like footballs balanced on bent card-table legs. They were all gleaning bugs out of a roadside ditch so I moved to the left to give them plenty of room. I stopped opposite the quartet and one adult looked at me as if to say, “So, what did you expect?” One juvenile approached the car, stuck its head nearly into the open window and looked at me like a dog looks at a ceiling fan.
After walking about three miles, spotting a variety of birds and other animals, and consuming a gallon of water, I decided to sit in the shade and let the birds come to me. The plan worked. Coming across an open space I spotted a tom turkey dressed in full regalia. This guy was the definition of “strut-yer-stuff.” I could not figure out who he was showing off for until I spotted the dark silhouette on the edge of the field—also in the shade.
He bobbed and weaved, tail flaring, turning and twisting. He spun around so many times I thought he’d screw himself into the ground. If birds could sweat this dude was in a lather. And the female? Not interested. Too hot for sex, seemed to be her message. Finally she perked up and stepped out of the shadows to have a closer look at Prince Charming and his finery.
Poof! Old Tom imploded. I’ve seen balloons at birthday parties stay inflated longer when stuck with a pin than this guy did. I thought he had been shot at close range with a silencer-equipped rifle. I focused on his hoped-for-intended and understood. Seems that it was a black vulture, not a hen turkey.
Have you ever seen a bird sulk? He, too, headed for the shade.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Put Your Trust In …

I've been fishing for more years than I can remember. Never in all that time have I been asked for my license. This incredible run of luck has never encouraged me to not buy a license. It’s a small price to pay, I think, for all the good it does. So I had my non-resident license in my pocket this time, as usual.
I was in the middle of the Batten Kill, on the New York state side, west of the border with Vermont, working the four miles of catch and release water, dazzled by the scenery and beginning to wonder if my toes had fallen off since my feet no longer seemed attached to my legs. I had not seen another human for hours. I had that creepy feeling on the back of my neck, however, like someone was about to criticize my backcast. I looked over my shoulder and there stood a guy from, I think, U.S. Fish and Wildlife!
He asked how the fishing was going, that sort of stuff. Then we exchanged small talk about the weather and how gorgeous this place was. The usual stuff guys do, but less obvious than dogs. Then he says, “Ya know, I have to ask you about your license, but first I'd like to ask you to do a favor for me.”
Hmmm. “Sure,” says I. Then he says, “I really don't want to climb into my waders and walk out there, so would you take this thermometer and hold it about a foot below the surface and tell me the temperature?”
“Sure,” says I. It was 47 degrees! No wonder my feet were so cold. And no wonder the trout weren't moving. They're too smart to expend much energy below 50 degrees.
So the guy records the temperature then says, “You do have a license, right?”
“Sure,” says I. And before I could remember which of the 27 pockets on my fishing vest it was in, he says thanks and was gone.
Now, given that fishermen have an undeserved reputation for stretching the truth on occasion, this guy was either quite trusting or he was a fly fisher.

Friday, April 28, 2006

A Day on the Stream

The first gift my granddaughter, Ruby, gave me was the opportunity to fish the Batten Kill. (The second was a gift card to Starbucks. At 10-days-old, this kid really has my number.) She had the good sense and good fortune to be born in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Her grandmother and I headed north with the spring migrants as soon as time and vacation arrangements allowed. Rain and unseasonably chilly temperatures for mid April kept me inside the first couple days, doing all the things a grandpa is supposed to do—like staying out of the way doing home repair chores.
The weather broke by midweek and I was off to the Holy water of the famed Batten Kill, or Battenkill, take your pick on the spelling.
The beautiful river has its start in the Green Mountains of Vermont and follows a winding course of about 50 miles in its rush to get to the Hudson River. About half that distance is in New York state.
I opted to fish the sections around Eagleville and Battenville—early home of Susan B. Anthony—in the shadow of covered bridges and freshly budding maple, willow and sycamore trees.
As writer John Gierach has said, any guy who starts a fishing story by telling you how beautiful the place is, probably didn’t catch any fish. And so it was. The Batten Kill is a dry-fly fisher’s dream. Incredibly clear water. Long, smooth runs. Pools so deep they appear bottomless. Riffles that go for a quarter mile. Not another human in sight—which should have been a clue.
Late in the afternoons the blue-wing olives and Hendricksons started hatching. Swarms of insects that created a frenzy of activity among the tree swallows, Eastern phoebes and some empidonax fly catchers I could not identify.
One afternoon I was treated to some music by a nearby barred owl. It sounded close but I could not find it. I watched a pileated woodpecker hammer out its nesting cavity and happened upon a half dozen common megansers sunning themselves on a gravel bar.
All-in-all a successful day or two on the stream. Anyone who thinks fly fishing is about catching fish misses the point. It’s about not doing what others expect of you.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Off the Beaten Path

Sunday, Susan and I took a hike into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to check an area we'd never visited—which is easy enough to do in this huge gem we call our backyard. Our hike took us straight into the arms of the park. It was one of those areas we drive by all the time and always say, "Someday we're going to have to climb that hill and ..."
Someday finally arrived. This was not a trail you'll find on the map. We just followed the path of least resistance. Everywhere it was evident that winter had marched out with its heavy boots on. Left behind were wounds that Nurse Spring was doing her best to heal and hide. Spring beauties, cut-leaf toothwort and coltsfoot blanketed the hillside. May apples poked up through last year's long-dead grasses and weed stalks. And garlic mustard. Everywhere was invasive garlic mustard.
Another invasive species was the amount of trash. Several balloons from some gala had drifted in. We resolved to bring a trash bag with us next time to haul out the trash mindless people left behind. How can people leave their trash in a spot that is preserved for its beauty?
We followed a deer track to the top of a hill. Along the way ruby-crowned kinglets oblivious to us humans busied themselves. More than a half dozen noisy red-breasted nuthatches gleaned what they could from the bark of walnut and conifer trees. Flitting all around us was a large flock of brown creepers.
We paused for lunch on top of another hill that offered a commanding view of the Cuyahoga River. A cooperative yellow-bellied sapsucker provided us with an excellent study opportunity. We noted how his legs seem to be set wider on his body than most birds so that he "hugs" the tree as he climbs. To compare and contrast, we had a steady stream of red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, a downy woodpecker and pileated woodpeckers to keep us entertained. We ended the day with 46 species and the warblers have yet to arrive.
That's the way to spend a Sunday morning.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Mysteries of Spring

Susan and I went for an early spring bird walk with our favorite naturalist, Wendy, to our favorite spot in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We call the spot Warbler Ridge. Don’t look at the map, you’ll not find the name. We gave it that designation years ago after a great day of birding there.
The real benefit of birding with a naturalist, as opposed to an ornithologist, is that she makes you look at things other than the birds—the ground for instance.
This spot is a bit off the trail and I suppose, if everyone strayed from the straight and narrow path, the place would begin to look like downtown Cleveland. However, we try to walk gentle on the land.
While watching where to put my feet and looking for wildflowers, I was stunned to see the corner of a $20 bill peaking out of the grass! On closer inspection we realized the bill was part of a field mouse’s nest. I gently removed the $20. One small nibble in the corner—not even as much deterioration as inflation—was the only damage.
How did a $20 bill get out here? We looked around for more. Nope, just the one and no sign of the mouse, either.
Who says birding doesn’t pay?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Early Bloggers

I’ve recently been reading "Saratoga," written by Richard L. Ketchum. The book is a fascinating, in-depth look at the Revolutionary War battle that changed American history.
In this age of instant communications, the fact that it took letters weeks and months to go from one place to another—assuming they arrived at all—is hard to believe. Even more interesting are the challenges faced by people who created those communications.
For example: Where did they get ink with which to write home? It was challenge enough to find paper and quill pens. The ink was a special situation in which nature played a major role—more so in those days than it does now.
Powdered ink was carried by most soldiers. With it they recorded the important and mundane moments of the life of a soldier in the field. From the letters they wrote and diaries they kept, we get a glimpse of what life must have been like. The terror of soldiering, however, rarely filters through.
Ketchum says the ink was known as gall ink, made of ferrous sulfate (or copperas) and galls from the bark of oak trees. Both contain tannic and gallic acid. The two substances were mixed with gum arabic from the Middle East to give body to the ink and keep it from flowing too fast. The ingredients were then reduced and sifted through cloth to make a fine powder.
When a soldier wanted to write a letter, he mixed the powder with rainwater (something all soldiers have always had an abundance of, except maybe our current crop of warriors), or he used white wine or beer—always in short supply.
And we complain about hard drives crashing and servers going down.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Time Machine

Someone turned on the time machine last night. Fortunately, I had drifted back just a month or so, into February, before the alarm propelled me into my day. A cool number on the calendar – 4/5/6.
A couple inches of snow surrounded the daffodils, which only a couple days ago had been struggling to make an appearance and had finally broken through the frozen earth. Now this – again. Some greeting for them after so long an absence.
I surveyed the tracks in the yard as my coffee maker finished its daily death rattle. The whiteness of the snow looked so melancholy. Here and there the daffodils and brave hyacinths looked like they had been planted in snow instead of soil. Crocuses, like the local baseball team, were saying, “wait ‘til next year.”

Monday, April 03, 2006

Endings and Beginnings

It was dark—again—while waiting for the bus this morning.
The first day back to work since we entered the Twilight Zone, a.k.a., Daylight Stupid Time.
Venus displayed her beauty in the eastern sky. Jupiter headed for some rest in the west, still bright after putting on a show all night.
An American robin competed with his brethren and three northern cardinals. Cardinals won on extra points, given for their bright-colored outfits.
The smell of worms pleasantly outdid the fumes of traffic at this early hour.
All of this, proof that there is life under the shroud of winter.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Think Spring

What better time to think spring than in the depths of winter--such as it has been. I was looking through the Old Farmer’s Almanac and spotted a great article on what to plant to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. There is a list of 24 flowers known to attract hummingbirds and 43 that will attract butterflies. A lot of them do double duty.
It seems that the choices range from allium to zinnia and everything in between. So what happens if, like me, you are flower challenged? I have to admit, I don’t know an allium from a zinnia. To the rescue comes Lone Pine Publishing. It recently sent me a couple of books for review, Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians, and Perennials for Ohio. (This is the same company that published Jim McCormac’s great book, Birds of Ohio.)
Don’t dismiss the first book based on its rather lengthy and pinpointed geographical title. The 496-page volume covers 16 states, including much of Ohio. More than 1,200 species in 90 families are covered in 800 color photographs. The best part, for folks like me, is the color key for finding a species by flower color. This type of quick-finding color helper is great for beginning birders and invaluable for a flower book.
The book also includes information on history, medicine, Native American traditions, folklore and name origins. This is a great book to have even before the flowers bloom. It took the authors 14 years to compile the information in this book so it’s a steal.
The second book, on our state’s perennials, is more tightly focused. Grouped into 89 entries, these species, varieties, hybrids and cultivars range from the easiest to grow to challenging flowers that will expand your gardening triumphs. The book is loaded with personal comments, common sense and garden wisdom. The flowers-at-a-glance section in the front of the book is better than any written index, ever. More than 500 color photographs make this a great read even if you’re not a gardener.

Guarding the Turf

I almost didn’t make it to work today. And when I did get in, my feet were still a bit damp. When it’s bright and sunny and the temperature is holding hands with the 50 degree mark on the thermometer—well, heading for that cramped office cubicle, dust-filled air and ringing telephones tends to lose its appeal.
I stopped at a wetlands spot in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. There had been some reports of a couple swans there so I needed to check it out. The swans were there—mute swans—along with 35 other species.
It was easy birding. I stood next to my car and just scanned the area. When I saw some duck activity I was glad that I’ve been procrastinating about getting the spotting scope out of the trunk for the past couple weeks. Sometimes it pays to be slow. Northern shovelers with their oversized beaks making bubbles in the water like kids, male hooded mergansers in regal splendor, a belted kingfisher hanging on to a wiggling fish large enough to make me envious.
And that’s the way I could have reported to work; dry feet, fresh air in my lungs and a head filled with thoughts of things other than what I get paid to do.
The cacophony created by the red-winged blackbirds felt glorious after so many months of winter silence. I should have been paying more attention. I never saw him coming until he was 15 feet away. It looked like two, blood-red eyes bearing down on me. When I got past the red I could see the yellow parentheses on the outsides of those eyes. Then the black body and, whoosh! the lethal beak. Whoa, partner, that was close. A rather upset red-winged blackbird landed on a nearby branch and was explaining something to me I really did not understand. To make his point, he came at me again. I got the message and moved and moved and moved with each pass until he was satisfied I was no longer a threat. He settled atop a stalk of last years’ fragmities to be sure I’d stay put. To get to my car, however, I’d have to cross through the turf in question. My choices were to venture through his territory and risk a peck on my bald pate, or take a slightly circuitous route that might do damage to my tasseled shoes.
It’s not the first time I went someplace with wet feet.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Heal the Wounds

Heal the Wounds, Hide the Scars

Digging through a small wooden box in which I keep a lot of mementos of the last century, I came across a William Spear-designed pin commemorating the March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez tragedy. I was big on pins celebrating one cause or another in those days. And like bookmarks to measure what we've lost and wristwatches to tell us what time it isn't, this pin combines those two concepts into a reminder of what was and what might have been. And it adds an element of what still is and what might be. It depicts a simple, oil-stained eagle feather.
Before the oil had washed away and the smoke cleared, Exxon paid about $300 million to the people affected by the spill. The courts set the damage figure at $287 million. Exxon also paid $2.2 billion for the clean-up efforts, until 1992 when the U.S. Coast Guard and State of Alaska declared the cleanup complete.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline continues to supply about 17% of the U.S. domestic oil production.
A couple years ago, on the 15th anniversary of the beaching of the oil tanker on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council issued a progress report. Instead of direct intervention, such as rearing and releasing seabirds, the trustee council focused on gaining knowledge and ensuring good stewardship as the best tools for fostering the long-term health of marine ecosystems.
Given all the human-inflicted environmental disasters we've had since March 24, 1989, including a couple of wars, the Exxon Valdez exercise is beginning to look like a fading oil spot on the garage floor.
We're paying a high price for our endless love affair with the automobile. To paraphrase President Bush, however, we'll just leave it to our children and grandchildren to resolve when we should end this affair.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What are Friends For?

Getting By With Help From Our Friends

I was a bit skeptical from the beginning. If the guides had not been the best available in the area, I would never have done it.
I had been fishing for steelhead on the Cuyahoga river, just north of Station Road bridge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As for the fishing, well the bird activity was excellent. A pileated woodpecker hammered away on a fallen log less than 50 feet from where I was enjoying one of Northeast Ohio’s little known pleasures--fishing for steelhead trout in the dead of winter.
The water temperature was 39 degrees, about the same as the air. Bright blue skies and sunshine. Great for humans and birds. Not so great for trout. Being heliophobic, they prefer an overcast day and water that is stained light green.
I began to think the fish were hanging out someplace else and the water further downstream looked more promising. This is the fishers’ variation on the grass and fence adage. I walked the railroad tracks for a while, occasionally wandering down toward the stream in search of a place to either fish or cross. The corollary to the “fishing looks more promising downstream,” is the belief that it always looks better on the other side of the river.
I passed the heron rookery, eerily silent in its cloak of white. Loosely built stick nests rustled, threatening to give in and obey gravity’s law. Four inches of snow crunched under foot.
Occasionally I stopped to examine animal tracks and tried to figure out what had happened. Turkeys had come through earlier in the morning, however, later than the rabbit that had zigzagged over the tracks and into what is a pond most months. Smaller tracks, stepping on the turkeys’, suggested something other than raccoons and squirrels.
After about 30 minutes of what might appear to squirrels as aimless wondering, I stopped to observe a half dozen Eastern bluebirds gleaning the branches for insects. Suddenly I realized I was paralleling two sets of coyote tracks. We seemed to be headed in the same general direction, possibly with the same mission in mind; to cross the river.
Their meandering, from the railroad tracks down to the river’s edge and back up, was the same as mine. When I looked closely at the sharp cut of their tracks in the snow, I realized this pair could not be far ahead. I scanned the route and saw nothing.
Eventually their tracks led to an unlikely spot about two feet above the rushing stream and abruptly stopped. The water color was such that I could see about 10 inches below the surface, perfect for steelhead but not good for humans when you’re unsure of what might follow in the next 12 inches.
Sure enough, the animals had crossed at this spot. I don’t think it was their first time. A strong scent of urine filled the air. In fact, steam rose from a spot they had marked on a sycamore tree next to their path. If I was this close, why couldn’t I see the creatures?
I reasoned they had to know what they were doing. And who am I to argue? A helpful tree limb gave me support as I tentatively lowered my left foot into the water. The footing was excellent. Beneath the 18 inches of green-stained water lay a smooth gravel bed offering excellent passage. Most places in the Cuyahoga River are like trying to walk on bowling balls. Ice and moss covered bowling balls to be a bit more accurate.
I worked my way into the middle of the stream against a rather stiff current. And since I was there, I decided to give the trout yet another chance to embarrass themselves. The fish, with their 2K brains, were a bit smarter than the fisher this day. From the middle of the river I watched a northern flicker, then a red-bellied woodpecker, take turns prying at the bark of the same dead tree limb.
Eventually I crossed the stream in water only slightly above my knees. I walked the stream bank in both directions looking for some evidence of my two guides. There was none. They must have opted for a bit of a swim. Or, as writer John Gierach has observed, they probably hid behind a nearby tree wondering what the guy standing in the water, waving the graphite stick, was up to.
I listened to the tinkling sound of golden-crowned kinglets above me. I thought about the coyotes and how they knew of that spot to ford the stream; how they marked it for others who would follow. It’s unfortunate that we humans have lost this “deep map” as native Americans refer to the databank of knowledge animals possess. I’m glad the animals are there to guide us.