Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Once In a … While

We’ve all said it: Something special happens once in a blue moon. Well, here comes your big chance. On New Year’s Eve we’ll have a blue moon. New Year’s Eve, aka Amateur Night, is a scary night to have a full moon—and a blue moon is only going to make it worse, I’m afraid. I’m glad I’m not a cop having to deal with the whackos that will be roaming the streets.
How rare is a blue moon? My mother joked when moving from our family home after 53 years, that she moves only once in a blue moon—and there was one that night.
Folklore has us believe that a blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month. Usually months have only one full moon. Full moons are separated by 29 days, while most months are 30 or 31 days long; so it is possible to fit two full moons in a single month. This happens every two and a half years, on average.
But what about that color thing? About 125 years ago, when the Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa exploded (scientists liken the blast to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb), the moon turned blue. Some of the ash-clouds were filled with particles about 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) wide--the right size to strongly scatter red light, while allowing other colors to pass. White moonbeams shining through the clouds emerged blue, and sometimes green.
According to the folks at NASA, the key to a blue moon is having in the air lots of particles slightly wider than the wavelength of red light (0.7 micron)—and no other sizes present. This is rare, but volcanoes sometimes spit out such clouds, as do forest fires.
So, December 31 we’ll have what Native Americans termed the Full, Long-nights Moon. It’s also called the Full Cold Moon. And since we have two full moons this month, feel free to pick either name.
Since I was still stuck on the word, “blue,” I had to do some research. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, one explanation connects it with the word "belewe" from the Old English, meaning, "to betray." Perhaps, then, the Moon was "belewe" because it betrayed the usual perception of one full Moon per month.
However, in the March 1999 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, author Phillip Hiscock revealed one somewhat confusing origin of this term. It seems that the modern custom of naming the second full moon of a month "blue," came from an article published in the March 1946 Sky & Telescope magazine. The article was "Once in a Blue Moon," written by James Hugh Pruett. In this article, Pruett interpreted what he read in a publication known as the Maine Farmers' Almanac (no relation to this Farmers' Almanac, published in Lewiston, Maine), and declared that a second full moon in a calendar month is a "Blue Moon."
Hmmm. The end of the story is: Get out your blue party hat and put out the blue corn chips. That last full, blue moon on New Year’s Eve was 19 years ago. The next won’t be until 2028. Waahooooo!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It Was a Dark and Gloomy …

It was a dark and gloomy morning. Susan and I sat, warming our hands and brains with the day’s first coffee. We peered through the darkness to where our bird feeders had yet to emerge. We were reviewing the lengthening list of “must-dos” for the day. The holidays are baring down on us like Santa’s fully loaded sleigh gone outta control.
We went to the bottom of the list, checked the thing least important, and made that our first choice. We tossed lots of warm clothes and birding gear into the car, along with enough Starbucks coffee to cause that company’s stock to rise a couple points, along with various other nutritious snacks we knew we’d never eat. We were off to see Ohio’s first-reported Allen’s Hummingbird. It’s been hanging around down in Amish Country, Holmes County, 60 miles from here, since September. It was just “officially” identified last Friday. The Ohio Bird Records Committee will make the final decision, eventually. There were enough reliable reports about this bird to convince us that it was a must see.
As with other out-of-place birds, the usual questions arise: What’s this three and three-quarter-inch California native doing in Ohio in December? How did he get here? Where will he go—and when?
Allen Chartier, a bird bander from Michigan, captured and banded this bird last Friday. You can find a thorough discussion of its capture and banding on his blog, There are also some great photos of the bird by Bruce Glick.
We were greeted at the door by Mae Miller, home owner and current provider for this bronze-tailed visitor. She told us the bird was seen twice this morning, already. The temperature had reached a balmy 18 degrees as we waited and watched the feeder, now wrapped in a heat tape to keep the water from freezing. After 15 minutes or so, bird bander/researcher Tom Bartlett appeared. Tom is a kind of bird magnet. It’s always good to have people like him around when you’re hoping for a rare bird to make an appearance.
Within five minutes or so, the diminutive guy we’d been waiting for zipped around the corner of the house. He gave the feeder a head fake, then flew to the nearby apple tree. Susan picked him out among the leafless branches while I whacked myself in the face with binoculars, cameras and uncooperative eyeglasses.
True to his nature, the green and rufous bird flew to the feeding station. He tanked up for a few minutes, then hurried off to do whatever California visitors do in Ohio in mid December.
What started as a gloomy day, when others might opt to hunker down with a good book, turned out to be just the opposite—proof that it pays to get out of bed in the morning. Now, what’s next on that list?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Let’s Do Lunch

Saturday was one of those days when I was so busy I barely had time to do anything. It was bright and sunny. I wanted to be outside playing. Instead, all of the inside things I had neglected during the week caught up with me.
Around noon I decided to take a lunch break. It seemed like a good time to stop doing whatever it was that I was suppose to be doing and watch the birds, who were also having lunch. Lots of activity happening with the usual suspects coming and going. I wanted to get some pix of the current visiting Red-breasted Nuthatch since he had a lot of color for a bird at this time of the year. Camera in place, I headed to the kitchen to see what I could scrounge up.
Walking back to my favorite spot for photographing the feeder activity, I noticed a total lack of birds at the array. Without even looking I knew the reason. D.B. Cooper (aka Cooper’s Hawk) was in the neighborhood. I glanced over at the deck railing and … Whoa! No peanut butter and jelly sandwich for this guy. House Finch seemed to be the special of the day.
Science tells us, on first arriving at a feeding station, a Cooper's may take three or four birds in quick succession. The smaller birds rapidly become wary, forcing the hawk to locate a nearby hiding place. On Sunday morning, Susan and I watched for nearly a half hour as D.B. perched in the rain, within 10 feet of the feeder. He seemed to have a confused expression, as if to ask, “Where are all the birds?”. Usually, hawks only visit a feeding station for a short period of time each day and take a bird or two. If a feeding station is especially busy or there is an exceptionally good hiding place nearby, the hawk may continue to visit for a week or two. Eventually the prey birds stay away and the hawk moves on to find another location.
Not so in our case. D.B. has become part of the landscape at our place. Our birding acquaintances have mixed emotions about hawks raiding the feeder. It does seem like dirty pool to attract songbirds, only to have them find themselves on the menu. I contrasted that thought with a recent encounter with a person who feeds birds as well as three feral cats. Talk about dirty pool. At least the hawk eats what it kills—and kills to eat.
Feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, according to the American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society and many other organizations that have studied the problem. There are more than 90 million pet cats in the U.S., the majority of which roam outside at least part of the time. In addition, millions of stray and feral cats roam our cities, suburbs and rural areas. If you have a cat, keep it indoors. Solutions to this crucial and unnecessary problem of feral cats can be found at, and

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sharp Air, Sharp Beaks

After 11 days out of town, mooching rooms and meals from relatives, it felt good to be back on the home patch this morning. The feeders were virtually empty so Task One was to refill the array. The air was a brisk, a sharp 23 degrees as I poured seed into the hoppers and shouldered some minor abuse about my dereliction of duties from the chickadee population.
I could tell winter was in the air, or at least in the ground, as I walked around. For the first time this season the earth felt as hard as concrete. Little humps and ridges left behind by the various creatures that eat beneath our feeders did not give way under my shoes.

It’s curious to me how things, like frozen earth, which seem so daunting to humans, are taken in stride by birds that must find their eats regardless of the time, temperature or anything else thrown at them.
Earlier in the week, while in St. Louis, I watched a female Northern Flicker, the ant eater of the avian world, as she inspected what had probably been a chipmunk, vole or maybe a snake, hole. No ants around at this time of year, yet she seemed quite interested in what might be down there. With caution she slowly lowered her head, and kept an eye on the two-inch opening. Finally, when sure nothing was going to have her for breakfast, she began hammering away. She pummeled the hole’s entrance until she eventually unearthed a … what?
Whatever she found, it was tasty enough to carry off into the trees.

Monday, November 30, 2009

An Easy Way to Find a Rare Sparrow

Way back in the last century, when I used to work for a living (as compared with playing for a living as I do now), I came to St. Louis on business—and birding as was my want. St Louis was, and still is to a degree, the only place in the country where a birder can find the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
A lot of mysteries surround the diminutive bird, the greatest for me is why the bird does not expand beyond its current range. Twenty years ago there was an article in the American Birding Association newsletter about the sparrow and how to locate it within a well-defined neighborhood in St. Louis. As luck would have it I was going to St. Louis that very week so the newsletter was on top of my business papers.
I recall that wintery day when I first saw the bird. Most of the streets in what I now know as the Dog Town area are one way. Piles of snow hampered travel. I was not to be denied. I eventually parked and walked the neighborhood until I finally spotted a flock of sparrows on a backyard feeder. As I was studying the bird, a resident of the house came out and I thought I’d have some explaining to do.
Turns out the man was quite friendly. He asked me where I was from, then looked up “Medina, Ohio” in a large notebook he was carrying. No one from Medina in his book. I was a “lifer” for him! He’d been ticking off birders for years, he said.
We talked about the birds for a while, then I had to go. He seemed equally as happy that I had seen the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
How the bird got to St Louis is not a mystery. In the 19th century, south St. Louis was the home of many European immigrants who wanted to see familiar birds from their homeland. So, on April 25, 1870, 12 Eurasian Tree Sparrows were released in Lafayette Park in south St. Louis. Numbers of other European birds were also released (European Goldfinches, Eurasian Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, and Linnets), but only the Eurasian Tree Sparrow successfully established a breeding population.
The birds have expanded their territory, however, not as fast or as far as one might expect of non-native bird. Since my wife hails from St. Louis and many of her relatives still live here, our trips to the area always include a search for the sparrow. It’s not a physically remarkable bird, only rare—which makes it remarkable, I guess. In that silent language birders often adopt, Susan, while talking on the phone, got my attention by clicking her fingers. I looked up from the book I was reading and she was pointing to the bushes in her mother’s suburban backyard. There sat a Eurasian Tree Sparrow! The search for the bird this year was the easiest ever.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

You Can Do a Lot With Spit

If you’re a paper wasp, home is where you hang it.
A great reason for getting into the woods at this time of the year is the opportunity to see the variety of nests animals build, then abandon, only to do it all again next year.
Highly visible are the nests left behind, sort of, by paper wasps. Paper wasps and hornets are social creatures. They live in colonies of workers, queens and males.
Only the inseminated queens overwinter, thus my hesitation to say the nests are abandoned. Queens might also winter over in any protected place; structures such as hollow logs, stumps, under bark and leaf litter.
The first warm days of late April or early May bring the queens to the surface. They select a nest site and build a small paper nest in which eggs are laid. One egg is laid in each cell. As she adds more cells around the edge, eggs are deposited.
Larvae in the center are older with the younger larvae further out. Cells at the rim of the nest contain eggs. After eggs hatch, the queen feeds the larvae. When larvae are ready to pupate, cells are covered with silk, forming little domes over the individual openings. Larvae pupate, emerging later as small, infertile females called "workers." This happens by mid-June. The first adult workers emerge and assume the tasks of nest expansion, foraging for food, caring for the queen and larvae and defending the colony.
The initial nest of the paper wasp is the work of a single female. It has a single layer or "tier" of cells and is not enclosed by envelopes. In hornets, the nests usually consist of a number of stories or "tiers," one below the other and completely enclosed by spherical walls. Each cell may be used for two or three successive batches of brood.
There are 22 species of paper wasps in North America and approximately 700 species world-wide. Most are found in the tropics of the western hemisphere.
The nests of most species are suspended from a single, central stalk and have the shape of an upside-down umbrella. Plant and wood fibers are collected by the wasps, mixed with saliva, and chewed into a papier-mâché-like material that is formed into the thin cells of the nest.
The next time you’re whining about a home repair job, imagine trying to complete it—even make the material you need—using only your mouth.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to Spend Time You Don’t Have

Red-bellied Woodpecker

In spite of more tasks than we could ever complete on our “Get-Ready-for-Thanksgiving” list, Susan and I could not stay focused. Yet another gorgeous day landed here in Northeast Ohio. These are truly bonus days and must not be wasted inside, doing absolutely necessary things.
The day started out gloomy and fog enshrouded. It promised to be a perfect day to stay inside. Then it happened. The sun popped out about 2 p.m. and we were finished working inside.
Off we went to a favorite spot in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, not shown on the maps. We call it the Ridge Walk. At this time of the year, when trees have dropped their leaves to show their true nature, you can see for miles to the southwest over the park.
Birding was slow, except for the woodpeckers. This species was not loafing on this late fall day. Most interesting were the Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We watched one guy in particular as he stashed acorns into cracks and crevasses of the shagbark hickory trees.
Red-bellied Woodpecker is a species we see year round. They are regulars at the suet cakes of our feeder array. When one is feeding it has no challengers. One look at that chisel-like beak and other birds find something else to do. The birds probe more than hammer like other woodpeckers, preferring to quietly get at those insects. Red-bellieds are omnivorous. Whatever’s on the menu seems to fit their needs. Their preference for insects and insect larvae provide a valuable natural control for insect pests.
As its name implies, there is a red patch edged with a yellowish wash on the belly of both the male and the female. Good luck seeing it.
And, from the Too-Much-Information Department comes this: A Red-bellied Woodpecker can stick out its tongue nearly two inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and the bird’s spit is sticky, making it easier to snatch prey from deep crevices. Males have longer, wider-tipped tongues than females.

Photo Op

Cooper's Hawk

This was one of those mornings when a lot of people might be tempted to leave the camera in the bag and slip into the safety of the Sunday newspaper. I couldn’t tell if the fog was lifting or settling in for the duration as I stepped outside in search of my newspaper, normally lodged against the garage door.
As I was wondering why the fog made it seem colder than the advertised 47 degrees, my resident Cooper’s Hawk landed in the recently pruned crab apple tree. He seemed to be inspecting the pruning job, which gave him clearer access to our feeder array only eight feet away.
When he saw me standing there he made a quick assessment and decided to look for smaller, or more colorful eats for breakfast.
So starts another day for all creatures, great and small.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is it Getting Hot in Here …

Last night’s spring-like temperatures in mid-November seemed appropriate for a discussion of climate change—the term now more preferred than global warming. It’s still about global warming no matter what you term it.
At a special meeting of concerned citizens, sponsored by AudubonOhio ( and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (, Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation, National Audubon Society (, presented his research on the shifting ranges of birds, gleaned from more than 40 years of Audubon Christmas Bird Count data. The tired cliché of birds being the canary in the coal mine was never more appropriate.
The end of the story (Or, is it just the beginning?) is that it’s getting warmer and of the 305 bird species Butcher reviewed, 58 percent show their center of abundance in winter is moving north—and many are moving westward as well.
“On average,” said Butcher, “the birds have moved north about 40 miles. More than 60 species have moved further than 100 miles north in winter and the leader appears to be the Purple Finch, whose center of abundance is now more than 400 miles further north of where it was 40 years ago.”
He added that northward movement was detected among species of every type, including more than 70 percent of highly adaptable forest and feeder birds.
Grassland species seem to be an exception. Only 38 percent mirror the northward trend. That’s far from being good news for species like Eastern Meadowlark and Henslow's Sparrow. This non-movement reflects the grim reality of severely depleted grassland habitat. It also suggests that these species now face a double threat from the combined stresses of habitat loss and climate adaptation.
The fact that feeder birds are wintering further north is an example of the complication in doing this kind of research. Feeder birds are finding a lot more food available as millions of people now make more food available than in the past. Couple this with the fact that nights are now warmer in winter, thus requiring less food for them to survive, and you can see how populations have increased and moved northward. Then, to add to the woes of neotropical migrants returning in spring, territories and food supplies are already controlled by birds that were able to survive the winter.
Butcher’s report was, as is all good science, heavily laden with numbers and warm, dry facts. If you want to see the entire report, you can read it, and much more information on this critical subject, at It’s a compelling argument that our world is getting warmer, and not necessarily better. Will we, and the birds, survive? Probably. When you factor in other things impacting the survival of birds—like loss and degradation of habitat—the picture for many bird species is bleak.
So, what can we do? Butcher, and Marnie Urso, grassroots coordinator for AudubonOhio, had a list of community action initiatives, such as letters to write, or phone calls to make to legislators on the state and national level. In my opinion, depending on legislative action to resolve this problem is like talking to that stump over there. I agree, policy action is probably the only thing that will wake some people and get them to do something—anything.
I think a more powerful, immediate message, or action, is to use less of things causing the problem. If your head hurts from beating it against the wall, moving the wall is not the best option.
Ohio ranks second as an emitter of greenhouse gases because of our reliance on outdated, inefficient coal-fired electric generation. Finding ways to reduce our personal use of electricity, driving more fuel-efficient cars and creating reliable, affordable public transportation will have a more immediate impact on global warming than all the hot air generated by politicians and their running-dog lackey lobbyists. Then, maybe, the politicians can turn off the lights and go home early, thus using even less electricity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Call It What You Will

Brown Creeper

I use to think it was Aldo Leopold who said words to the effect that the first step to understanding something was to call it by its proper name. Well, I can’t find the quote (maybe it was the voices in my head) so I’ll just say, ‘some wise person once said … .’ I was thinking about that quote this past weekend as Susan and I were birding with some friends. We were, ostensibly, looking for waterfowl, however, the birds have yet to start their major migration. Consequently, as birders will do, we looked at anything that moved.
Some birds’ names are right on target, while others make you scratch your head in wonder. Take the Ring-necked Duck we were seeking, for example. It has a beautiful white ring on its bill and no discernable marking on its neck; the Red-tailed Hawk’s tail is not always red; and only if you’re lucky do you see the red belly of the Red-bellied Woodpecker.
There can be no doubt, however, about the Blue-footed Booby, the Eastern Bluebird, or, our favorite from this weekend, the Brown Creeper. Most birds carry names that are descriptive of some color it has—or allegedly has. The creeper, creeps. It slowly (unless you’re trying to photograph it) works its way up the trunk of a tree, probing for insects or eggs. It’s coloration blends with the bark of a tree so well that when it stops moving your odds of seeing it are greatly reduced.
No matter what you call them, birds attract us for what they are and do. A chevron of Canada Geese flies over and we always look up. A Brown Thrasher thrashes and we always look down. And will we understand them better because of their names? Probably not. A name is a key to identification, not understanding.

Eastern Bluebird

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Morning in the Life …

Red-shouldered Hawk

In a couple months I’ll think of mornings with temperatures in the low thirties as warm and comfy. For the time being, I was questioning my clothing choices as I headed south on the trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. If I stayed in the sun, nearly impossible, it was comfortable. Otherwise, I’d describe it as being on the brisk side.
I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from far away. That distinctive, “kee-ah, kee-ah, kee-ah,” probably travels for miles on cool fall mornings. Following the sound, I located the bird, perched high, enjoying the warmth of early morning sun. Or, at least that’s how I interpreted the scene. He was puffed up like the Pillsbury Doughboy. I wondered how, from so high up, he could possibly spot his breakfast running in the leaf litter below.
Turns out that spotting a meal is easy as pie for these guys. Studies have shown they can spot a mouse a half mile away. His eyesight is two or three times better than we humans. If we had eyes like a hawk we could read a newspaper a football field away—or so goes the myth. I watched as the hawk called and looked around. Did he call so much for the reason I was told an owl hoots? Some theorize the owl hoots in order to scare prey out of hiding.
Occasionally he glanced down at me. I’m sure he was thinking, “If that human had these cool brow ridges over his eyes like me, he wouldn’t have to fuss with that damn silly baseball cap to keep the sun out of his eyes.”
He finally tired of me, and the fact that I was probably standing in his breakfast cereal bowl, and took off.
I took a couple shortcuts heading for home and popped up on the bike trail and back toward what passes for civilization in these parts. I glanced up at the utility towers and saw a Red-tailed Hawk sunning himself. He seemed content to just look around this morning. These birds of the buteo species are not built for speed, so it’s a good thing they have great eyesight. And probably their reason for sitting in the open so often.
It didn’t take long before crows in the neighborhood also saw the hawk. In a obvious case of racial profiling, the crows began harassing the hawk for no reason other than he was in their neighborhood. With reluctance the hawk dropped from his perch to get some wind beneath his wings and made a graceful glide, about 50 yards away, to the safety of a stand of oak trees.
Hawks make it looks so easy, although I’m not so sure about the part where you have to catch all your meals with your mouth …

Red-tailed Hawk

Monday, November 09, 2009

Well, That Depends …

Pileated Woodpecker

I was out on the Bike/Hike Trail early this morning to check on “my” mockingbirds. I’ve been monitoring the activity of a few Northern Mockingbirds for about a year now. The species is still an uncommon visitor to this corner of Summit County. I’d not been out to check on the birds for nearly a week so I was curious to see if they were still hanging around.
Six Eastern Bluebirds fluttered into the trees nearby as I was trying to make some pictures of a uncooperative Dark-eyed Junco. I turned my attention to them. About that time, two women walking their dogs—at least I think they were dogs—stopped to see what I was looking at.
“Hi. You a photographer,” asked one whose dog was about the size of a gerbil.
Someday I’ll just simply answer ‘yes’ to that question, but not today. “No. This camera’s just for show,” I had to say.
“There’s nothing to take pictures of,” said the other woman, whose dog looked like a cat I used to own. “I mean, like all the color is gone even if the leaves were on the trees. Which they aren’t, by the way.”
I had just been thinking how great it was to have the leaves off the trees so we can better see the colorful woodpeckers.
Trying to redeem my karma, which I’m sure had dropped a few points, I sought to educate. I pointed out the woodpeckers, of which three species were visible without binoculars. A Pileated Woodpecker passed overhead, so close I could hear its wings beat. I pointed out four other species of birds, colorful berries and the grasses which had turned a thousand shades of gold.
They were not convinced. The lady with the gerbil on a leash said, “Well, I guess it’s all how you look at it.”
With which I had to agree. The mockingbird calling in the distance was my cue to leave.

Northern Mockingbird

Friday, November 06, 2009

Ten Reasons For Not Catching Fish

First, I’d like to thank all of you folks who went to the office this morning on this drop-dead gorgeous day. It’s because of you, and Social Security, that guys like me can blow an entire day on the stream, not catch a fish, and still be happy.
The fly fisher has 1,000 things he can do wrong and not catch a fish. The fish, on the other end of this story, has only to commit a single error. Here are 10 reasons why the fish won—this time:
1. The sun was too bright.
2. The water was too clear.
3. It was too early in the day.
4. It was too late in the day.
5. Three Belted Kingfishers worked the stream, distracting me.
6. A herd of 11 deer crossed upstream and spooked the fish.

7. My newly built steelhead rod was too gorgeous and distracting.
8. The moon was on the wane.
9. Barometric pressure was too low.
10. Barometric pressure was too high.
11. My fishing guru, Tom, was, allegedly, preparing for a trip to North Carolina.
Any fisher who tells you it’s not always about catching fish is, at least in this instance, telling the truth.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Close Encounter

In retrospect, had he been so inclined, he could have had his way with me. And, in retrospect, had I any common sense, or sense of fear, I should have done something, anything, other than what I did. I suppose my highly evolved human brain was telling me I had encountered white-tailed deer during rutting season in the past and nothing negative had happened. So why panic?
I was about two and half miles into my hike and stopped to make some pictures of the little brown birds making a fuss in the brush. It was a great group; White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, a couple Dark-eyed Juncos and a Field Sparrow or two.
I’d like to think I sensed, rather than heard the deer. I looked to my right and there he stood. He was within 10 feet of me. I quickly did the math: If I zoom back to 150mm, minimum focus is about 10 feet. Too close, and when I raise the camera he’ll … What will he do? Would a $3,000 Nikon club be a match for those six antler points or the sharp hooves? My point-and-shoot camera was in my jacket pocket, however, the battery had pooped out earlier.
Okay. I calmly assessed the situation and determined that, basically, I was dead meat.
He just stood there, looking at me. No huffing and puffing. No scraping the ground with his hooves. In a stare-down contest I might be able to take him. If it came to a smack-down, I was toast.
I thought maybe diplomacy might be the way out. I asked him what he thought of Tuesday’s elections? Did he think winter would be early this year? How ‘bout those Cleveland Cavilers? News, weather, sports; the basics of modern-day conversations.
We looked at leach other for what seemed like a long time. It was probably 15 seconds. He exhaled a short breath. I did the same. I didn’t realize I’d been holding mine. He turned his head and looked off in the direction he was heading. He didn’t move, only stared, head raised, totally at ease. Fearless.
The birds fussing in the bushes had stopped. Were they watching and waiting? I tried to see what he was seeing as we both gazed into the scenic valley to our west. I saw colorful cars zipping on the road. A gray building I knew to be a veterinary clinic. A colorful American flag stretched to its maximum in the stiff northwest wind. Multi-colored houses spotted the scene to our left and in the distance, a housing development blighted the far side of the valley.
And there were signs. Lots of signs. Litter on a stick. Signs telling me to do this, don’t do that. Bedraggled signs advising me to vote for this or not for that. Signs telling me where political boundaries were—as if it made a difference. Garish signs directing me to the scenic byway blocked my view of the scenic byway.
What did he see? Research by the University of Georgia, University of California and the Medical College of Wisconsin indicates that deer see primarily in shades of green and blue. Researchers believe that deer probably see fluorescent orange as lime green. So, other than loss of habitat, he probably could not make much sense out of what he saw. I realized we weren’t all that much different.
One last soft exhalation and he walked away, carefully picking his way down the slope, through someone’s backyard and into the protective arms of the national park.

Field Sparrow. Note the band on its right leg.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A New Way of Seeing

Last night’s full moon

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, such as last night, or near-full moon, haul your spotting scope out. Focus on the nearest astronomical object we have—the moon. If you have an eyepiece that gives you 30X magnification you’ll see sights you might not expect. It also works with binoculars, however, it’s not as exciting since you can’t get the high magnification.
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 for owls, swans, cranes, flights of ducks and whatever else might be slashing through the late-fall night sky.
Check an almanac, your local paper or 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 November we hit the full moon on the 2nd. In December we have a real treat—a blue moon. We have full moons on the second and the 31st. Oh my, a full moon on New Year’s Eve.
We might see some early flights of Tundra swans (already moving through the area), though they usually fly over later in the month. It’s a great way to end one year and start another.
I keep watching and hoping for a loon.

Clouds offer an artistic challenge to astrobirding.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Birds Just Wanna Have Fun

We have a resident Cooper’s Hawk. Not surprising given that Cooper’s are the more common accipiter species in this area. I’ve taken to calling him (I assume it’s a him) D.B. Cooper in honor of conspiracy theorists everywhere.
If I glance out and see no activity at the feeders, I’ll look around in the trees and often find him perched nearby. D.B. also likes to stand on our deck railing. I once saw him sitting atop the feeder array. This boy needs some education on hunting skills.
This morning as I headed for the trailhead in the park, I caught sight of a speeding bullet coming from my left. No, not a bullet. It was D.B. out to sharpen those hunting techniques. His target species was the resident flock of about 30 Canada Geese we tolerate. As he made his first pass, about 30 feet above the crowd, I noticed that the huge flock of American Crows that has been hanging around were also feeding among the geese. I’d guesstimate the crow flock at 100 birds.
D.B. passed over the gathering and not a feather moved. No one paid any attention. Whatever the geese and crows were feeding on held more promise than a death threat from something smaller than any bird in the crowd.
Undeterred, D.B. executed an inside loop and passed over again, this time about 15 feet above the heads of the ground feeders. That maneuver earned him a few looks and a couple honks.
Another return flip, this time right above the upraised heads of several geese. Now, a few feathers were ruffled. More honking, joined by some cawing from the crows, seemed only to encourage D.B., who has probably never whacked anything larger than a Mourning Dove. This time he reversed direction in a space no longer than his wingspan, diving on two of the more vocal geese. All I can figure is that they must have said something really nasty about his mother. I noticed his talons were not extended, however, I don’t thing the geese realized that. Both geese, using what they had learned in elementary school of how to duck and cover, hit the grass, chinstrap first.
D.B strafed the lot. His actions sent the crows packing in all directions. It looked like an explosion of black sand as birds, all vocalizing, sought shelter. Geese on the fringe of the action wanted no part of the little guy with the blue-colored back and pointy wings. They, too, took off in a thunder of applause, for which side I’m not sure. The two geese who were not able to keep their beaks shut, hugged the grass as D.B. leveled off and came to rest in a nearby walnut tree, now nearly devoid of its leaves.
Apparently training was over for the day. If geese can slink, that’s what the loud-mouthed pair did, talking to themselves or each other, they made their way 25 feet to the safety of the pond.

D.B. Cooper

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Smell Something Fishy

Park officials in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park seem to be caught between a rock and a wet spot these days. For a long time, the Cuyahoga River dam at Station Road, with Ohio 82 rumbling overhead, has been a bone of contention for environmentalists, fishers and historians. The river is approximately 100 miles long; with 22 of those miles falling within the boundaries of the national park. The stream has been designated as an “area of concern,” one of 43 such areas in the U.S. It has also been designated as American Heritage River.
The back story (Reader’s Digest version) is, the dam, originally erected about 200 years ago, serves as a way of feeding water into the Ohio & Erie Canal—a National Historic Landmark—that parallels the river. Well, not exactly. The current dam was really built in 1951 at approximately the site of the original wooden structure. Historians think, if there’s anything left of the original dam, it’s probably further up stream.
The current 12-foot-high structure still diverts about 2,200 cubic feet of water a day into the canal. This water maintains an illusion of realism for people coming to the park to see how the canal and locks operated. The 163-foot-wide structure is a major piece of heritage in the park.
As a fly fisher, I have mixed emotions about this conundrum. If the dam goes away, so will some great fishing opportunities provided by the canal. Casting for freshwater bonefish (aka carp) is easy and great in the canal.
On the other hand, about two rod lengths away in places, a free running stream would be a boon to the growing steelhead fishery and migrating native fish populations. The steelies already come up the river, and evidently jump the dam when water is high enough. People have been known to catch them 10 miles or so back up stream.

What to do? How can we find a balance between natural resources and historic resources?
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency biologists are ready to pull the plug on the dam. They claim it will improve the ecology of the river. Park ecologists say, they are determined to keep water in the canal.
In seeking a solution, the primary parties opened the discussion to the public, October 28. I went to the meeting, as did nearly 100 other folks. I’ll spare you my rant about people who attend meetings and have no idea why they are there—other than to pitch a bitch at public officials. Tonight’s meeting was the start of the information gathering required when environmental impact statements have to be written. The process will take at least two years before any decision is made on the fate of the Canal Diversion Dam.
After listening to Park Biologist Meg Plona, stream ecologist Bill Zawiski from the Ohio EPA, and Kevin Skerl, an ecologist with the national park, I’m convinced, getting rid of the dam is the best thing for the stream, the fish and us fishers. There are, however, many other things to consider, none of which, in my estimation, are as important as the health of the stream.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Goodness of People

Northern Wheatear

I first thought to title this Wheatear Revisited. Then I realized it’s a story not so much about birds, the Northern Wheatear specifically, but about people and kindness.
Anyone serious (and I’m not sure how to define that) about birding, serious enough to jump in a car and chase 10 miles or 1000 miles to see a rare bird, has been the recipient of the largess of others—often non-birders.
Birders have a network, now even more intense with current technology, to alert likeminded people of the appearance of something special. Over the years, the birds I’ve chased—some successfully, some not—have always appeared to be doing their normal bird thing. The humans on the scene of the sighting, typically act a bit goofy, myself included I suppose. We birders are an easily excited lot. The homeowner who must put up with hoards of people, some inconsiderate of property, typically seem a bit shell shocked.
All of which brings me back around to the Northern Wheatear of this past September, a letter we received today from Emery Yoder—the Amish farmer whose farm the bird chose to visit, and the goodness of people. Mr. Yoder and his family hosted more than 600 birders from all over the country who flocked to his farm to see the Northern Wheatear. The family was gracious beyond the call of duty.
As we were leaving that day, Susan began talking gardening with the young man. The end of that story is we, and many others, walked away with delicious tomatoes, the likes of which never make it to the market, as well as a large bag of grapes. Mr. Yoder accepted money for his produce, however, it seemed that he was not sure what to charge.
Susan made a terrific grape pie the following day and sent a thank you note off to the Yoder family, not only for allowing us to disrupt their daily life, but for the great grapes and tomatoes. She mentioned, if he knew of any farmers in his area who might have Barn Owls, we’d love to get the location. We’ve both seen Barn Owls elsewhere, however, we’d like to see this elusive and threatened species here in Ohio.
Fast forward about a month to today. We received a handwritten letter from Mr. Yoder, still high on the stir created by the sighting of a special bird. His two-page note contained a wonderful grape pie recipe, along with a map and directions to a farmer friend of his who has barn owls and enjoys the visits of birders.
As Susan said, his note is a treasure.
When the daily news overwhelms you with atrocities humans inflict upon one another, think about plain people like the Yoders, and what the ramifications of a little kindness might be. And it started with a bird.

Northern Wheatear

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It Pays to Get Up

I glanced at my watch to see what time it wasn’t: O-dark 30. I was already a quarter mile down the tracks at Station Road in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I had a spot in mind to make some pictures, except the sun has to be just right, no wind and 1,000 other things over which I have no control had to fall into place.
The distraction of Red-headed Woodpeckers, however, chattering further down the trail, would not allow my mind to focus on the task at hand. The challenge of photographing this threatened species drew me deeper into the nearly dry wetlands. I’m still babying my allegedly injured knee so I took it slow, making sure I had good purchase on the railroad ties with each step. Birds were all around me, enjoying the promise of sun, apparently. Yellow-rump Warblers were making pests of themselves as they gleaned insects from low branches, seemingly unaware of my presence. I tried not to take it personally. Cedar Waxwings were snaging the higher-hanging fruits and bugs.

Eastern Screech-owl
I spotted the woodpeckers and watched as they flitted around, more like late spring, than early fall. As I scanned the trees I caught sight of an Eastern Screech-owl snoozing on its front porch, enjoying the first rays of the morning already hitting the upper branches.
Eastern Bluebirds were hawking bugs and making a lot of noise; unusual for this species, I thought. Then those sentinels of the forest, the Blue Jays, started making a serious racket. I looked around to see what had everyone so upset and spotted a Merlin perched high atop a snag.
To the Merlin’s credit, he was minding his own business, preening, paying little or no attention to the jays. This medium-size falcon species is a rare treat. They’re often confused with American Kestrels or Sharp-shin Hawks.
Some folks I know were probably just stumbling into the kitchen for that first cup of coffee. As Bob Dylan has noted, “Sleep is like temporary death.” If so, then early morning birding is certainly like life. And life is good.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Message From the Sparrow

After being on hiatus from hiking for nearly three weeks because of a bum knee, I started walking again this evening, with tacit approval from the doctor. It felt great. How I’ll feel in the morning will probably be grist for tomorrow’s blog mill.
After last week’s near-scare of winter, a bit of sunshine this evening was welcome. I’d not been on the Bike & Hike Trail in northern Summit County since late summer. I was wondering how “my” Northern Mockingbirds were doing. The Ohio Ornithological Society listserv has been all atwitter with birds migrating through, particularly sparrows, and I needed to get out and find some. Sparrows can be challenging (for me) in any season. To sort out gull species in sub-freezing conditions requires you be part masochist as well as a great birder. Sparrows, while favoring better weather conditions, give you only a fleeting glance to test your birding skills. And they’re 99 percent brown.
Not wishing to test the recuperating knee beyond reason, we opted for about three miles of easy walking. To our delight, the Northern Mockingbird was in his usual spot, high in a maple tree that has already shed its leaves.
Many of the usual suspects were around, however, sparrows seemed to be missing. Turkey Vultures, coming to roost on the huge power towers provided by First Energy Corp., seemed to be paying a lot of attention to me. I waved my arms to show them I was still alive, just moving slowly.
Nearing the end of our walk we heard him. He was so proud of his song. It seems like he’d start repeating the first verse before he finished the full version. There is little mistaking the song of a White-throated Sparrow. We then heard a second bird; then a third. Their message seemed to be: Get on with it, get on with it, get on with it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Battlefield Birds

Visitor Center, Antietam National Battlefield

I watched a kettle of 16 or so Turkey Vultures as it caught a thermal and climbed in the air. They passed the face of a quarter moon and rose higher. The cast bronze of the artillery piece I leaned against felt colder than the comfortable 40 degree air temperature. The sun had been up for about a half hour as I waited for the visitor center at Antietam National Battlefield to open. I wondered if the vulture’s genetic memory told him this was a good place to find a meal. Or, could the stench of blood left in the soil by 23,000 human dead still trigger hunger spasms in the birds? Antietam, or Sharpsburg, would be recalled as the deadliest day in a war that saw too many deadly days.
I stood on Sunken Road, later called Bloody Lane. It’s just a depression in the earth made by farm wagons where soldiers tried to hide. This firefight, which lasted three hours, killed 5,500 men. Eastern Bluebirds were shagging bugs from the wooden picket fence, built to replicate what was there in 1862. Were bluebirds there that morning when the first shots rang out just before dawn? Did they hang around as the cacophony of the muskets and cannon deafened men? Did the Confederate soldiers see the bluebirds through the blinding flash of the Union army muskets? Johnny Reb would have been facing same direction where I stood at approximately the same time of day and time of year, trying to imagine the horror in this now-bucolic scene.
I was in the area after dropping my hiking buddy off at Harpers Ferry. Since I was unable to do the hike, I thought I’d check out the historic sights. I couldn’t do the hike, but I wanted to get a feel for what I’d be missing, I suppose.
In the stillness that was this morning, a Northern Mockingbird sang his complicated song from atop a fir tree. Had mockingbirds graced the few trees shown in the photos of the battle’s aftermath? Only death and devastation can be seen. Men’s bodies strewn about. Limbs missing. Holes where there should be heads.
A pair of Horned larks flittered in circles nearby, then landed to glean what they could from the grass. European Starlings chattered in the trees alongside Bloody Lane. They had not been here in 1862 since they were not introduced in America until 1890. The cheerful and incessant song of a Carolina Wren drew my attention away from the depressing sight.
And what have we learned since that uncivil Civil War? Not much. I can’t imagine anyone touring the battlefields of Vietnam where 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese lost their lives. Nor will they tour the bloodstained battlegrounds of Korea, Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe the birds will.
The genetic memory bank of the vultures, or maybe the warming thermal, drew the kettle east, toward Gettysburg.

Bloddy Lane, Antietam National Battlefield

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Picture is Worth …

What’s a picture worth? I made the above photo a few days ago, just as I finished preparations for an eight-day wilderness backpacking trip. As happens, the packing ended in the living room. The 37-pound blue hulk would stay there until I loaded it into my car and headed south to meet up with my hiking partner. His actions mirrored mine. Except, he was heading north from Birmingham. In four days we’d meet near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. So this is a happy picture, filled with anticipation.
Then came Friday and my right knee, swollen to the size of a Halloween pumpkin. Apparently, two months of rigorous training had taken its toll. By Monday I could barely walk. The doc (and my wife, previously) said it was bursitis. To which I said, bursitis is for old people. To which both said …
Well, let’s forget what they said. Actually, I got a lot of sympathy and concern from Susan and from the doc. They probably sensed I was in the foulest mood I’ve been in for a long time. Being what I am, I did all the research on this bursitis thing, and am not happy with what I learned. That was after the doc had used a needle and syringe the size of a caulking gun to drain my swollen knee.
Now I’m hobbling around, running through all of the clichés I can think of: It’s not the end of the world; the Trail will be there when you’re ready; there are many people in worse shape …
So, the happy picture has turned into a sad picture. A picture of what might have been. I’ll look at it again, in a couple weeks, and maybe find it to be a happy picture once more.
And, the biggest pain in the butt (since nobody asked) is that I can’t retreat to the woods for solace as I normally do when life throws one of these curve balls at me.
Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Around Every Bend

He said his name was Tom. He was from Montana. I was unsure if he might be in the early stages of shock, or if it was hypothermia. Our temperature had dropped to 39 degrees and he was clad in a lightweight T-shirt and running shorts. Then I noticed his high-quality, muddy and scuffed hiking boots. He was no beginner. His disorientation seemed to be an overdose of adrenaline.
I was about an hour into a hike that felt more like a wrong way trip on an escalator. Wet leaves covered acorns. It was one step up and two slips back. Going down hill, it was one step down and—Yikes! More than once I had an earth-moving experience.
I dropped down off the ridge where I had been hiking in favor of the flat, less-challenging, multi-purpose trail known as the Towpath Trail. During the week it’s a pleasant experience. On weekends you take your life in your hands because if there’s a “purpose,” people will be doing it.
Tom was just standing there when I popped out of the bushes. Probably my clambering, along with the great conversation I was having with the Voices, alerted him to my presence. He looked at my pack and said, “Hi. You live here?”
Hmmm. Good question. I told him, not exactly. I just hike here, although I do live just over that ridge …
I guessed his age at early 20s. He told me this was his first visit to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He lived in Montana and his parents had just moved to the area and this was the first time he’d even been in Ohio and he decided to walk the dog and he started out about three miles down the trail and …
Wow! This guy could talk. Then he started asking questions. He was amazed to learn about the Ohio-Erie canal that once stretched the length of the state.
“Did they dig it by hand?”
“In 1827 hands and shovels were all they had.”
“How did locks operate?”
“Well, they dam the water there, and …”
“Where did all these trees come from?”
I asked him to back up to the part about walking the dog. He looked around like it was the first he’d heard about any dog. Then I spotted the dog coming out of the bushes. I never got the dog’s name. I called him Killer, which he didn’t seem to mind as he snarled at me. He was one of those white, puff-ball kinda creatures the coyotes in these parts have for starters—if they’re not too hungry. Killer had a little blue bow in his hair between his ears. I decided not to ask what that was about.
Tom went on and on about the trees and how green everything was. I answered his questions as best I could and was surprised at how much I do know about the park.
Then he said, “The best thing about this place, that we don’t have in Montana, is that there is something different around every bend in the trail. Our trails don’t bend.”
I wished him, and Killer, a pleasant hike. And told him to tell his friends in Montana how pretty Ohio can be.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Windfall for Wildlife

Wind, gusting to more than 40 miles per hour at times, added a new dimension to hiking this morning. I often pay attention to force and direction of the wind when bicycling, fly fishing, even birding. When I’m hiking, however, it’s usually not an issue. The density of the trees is often enough to divert the wind.
This morning’s breezes, however, were a revelation. Not the kind of revelation Sir Isaac Newton experienced when he was, allegedly, hit on the head with a falling apple. But a constant barrage of acorns, hickory nuts and black walnuts falling from the trees in high winds can open one’s mind, literally. Thankfully I was wearing a cap.
For about the first mile I thought the irregular pitter patter of nuts falling in the forest was kind of cool. I even thought I could hear cheering coming from the Wild Turkeys, White-tail Deer and other forest critters who depend on mast to get through the winter months.
Mast for wildlife comes in two basic types in this area, soft and hard. The softer things, like berries and fruits get consumed first, mostly. The hard mast is around much longer, and in a great variety.
For example, acorns from trees in the red oak group (red, black, scarlet, and pin oak) are more bitter than those in the white oak group (white, bur, chinkapin, and chestnut oaks). As a result, acorns from the white oak group are preferred by most wildlife species, and are often quickly consumed in the fall. Red oak acorns have a much longer “shelf life,” which makes them available for consumption during late winter when other food sources are scarce. They also provide food in years when few white oak acorns are produced.
I don’t know if this is a good or bad year for acorns. All I know is that showers of nuts fell all around me this morning. The acorns were not much more than a bother. The hickory nuts and, especially the black walnuts, were hazardous.
Whether Sir Isaac had an epiphany while sitting under the apple tree remains debatable. What I learned while hiking in mature oak and hickory forests is that on windy days, head for the pine and hemlock groves.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What Happened, Here?

Recently, I read a report where researchers focused on why more urban folks, particularly those living in the inner city, don’t use metropolitan parks. The premise was because of a lack of transportation. Turns out the most common complaint was that respondents would not know what to do when they got to the park.
Oh, my.
If you don’t know what to do when you get to a park, I suggest you talk with naturalists like Wendy Weirich at the Rocky River Nature Center, or, Paul Motts in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. These leaders, along with hundreds of naturalists in the northeast Ohio area have a to-do list that would take a lifetime (of enjoyment) to complete.
I thought about the survey’s respondents while hiking this morning. My first suggestion for something to do would be to just look around. You don’t have to “do” anything in a park. There is no on/off switch.
We’ve created a culture that needs entertaining. Theme parks, and most television programming, frees our minds of the necessity to create. Children go to DisneyWhatever and live someone else’s dream. They know what to do when they get there: Thinking not required.

In a span of about five miles, I counted more than a dozen things that I considered a challenge. Bird calls and identification are constant. Yes, many of these challenges require a certain level of knowledge, skills for lack of another term. That’s why we have naturalists and books. Yet, knowing the shredded stump was probably the work of a skunk looking for bugs, or the oval-shaped holes in the tree were made by a Pileated Woodpecker, is not rocket science. It’s natural science.

The real challenge, the things that require some brain work, are finding a make-shift hiking staff leaning against a tree, for example. The why or what of such a simple act require some thought. It demands the person use his or her imagination. Grist for the writer’s mill.
What you do with yourself when you get to the park, matters most.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Give Us This Day Our Daily Options

While drinking my morning coffee, I pondered trail options in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for my morning hike. I opted for a trail I had walked, extensively, doing bird population census studies, yet had never hiked with a pack.
As I drove to the trailhead I turned on the news for about 30 seconds. More stuff I can do nothing about. You can only take a little news at a time. Too much and you are not portable; not enough and you’re making happy rhymes. An empty head filled with John Gorka’s words would play well this morning.
From the parking lot I looked out over a corn field picked not-quite-clean by human machines. The machine’s leftovers created a giant food dish for a flock of 25 Canada Geese. Or, were those Wild Turkeys?
Of the two packs in my car, I chose the heavier since I was only planning to do six miles—or maybe five.
By the time I hit the three-mile marker I had to make a choice; take the long, tough loop to the left, or the short, easy loop to the right. Being a leftist by nature, the choice was simple.
A light drizzle rattled the canopy above, not reaching the ground. I wondered why the little toad and snail I stopped to photograph were so well camouflaged, while the gaudy orange fungi, just to their right, stuck out like an abandoned hunter’s cap. In fact, that’s what I thought it was when I opted to venture off the trail.

Then I heard the noise. Back in the last century, while I was still in the journalism game, there was an adage: When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras. While I always thought seeing zebras would be more fun, I understood. So this morning, when I heard the hoof beats, I knew what to look for. Sure enough, two riders were approaching. I guess, on a “bridle” trail, you’d expect to see horses and not pretty ladies in white dresses—nor zebras.
The riders slowed as they approached this aberration in their path. “Oh, it’s a human,” said the first rider, probably more to her horse than her partner who seemed capable of coming to the same conclusion.
The first horse and rider passed with no other acknowledgement. The second horse was curious. It stopped and looked me over. It did a full body scan, like a guy sizing up a potential date in a bar on Saturday night. The horse made some snuffling sounds and inched closer. The 37 pounds on my back, now wedged against a tree, left me few options.
The rider decided to have some fun. She said to the horse, “Oh, does that hat look like something you’d like to eat?”
Not trying to get into personification here, but I’d swear the horse shook its head and did the eye-roll thing. It then inched a bit closer. Close enough for me to tell it had been eating oats for breakfast. My mind flashed: If this turns to shit, here was something the horse and I had in common. The rider spoke again. “Does that orange shirt make you think this is a giant carrot?”
Enough was enough. As the horse cocked its head and contemplated how it would get around the big blue thing on the carrot’s back, I realized I did have a small option of moving to my left. As I slipped away, the riders bid me a farewell and told me to have a good day—like it was optional.
When I got home around lunch time I considered choices in the fridge and opted to eat my dessert first. Life is too short to do otherwise.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Harbingers of Fall

“Harbingers of fall” sounds awkward. We usually tag spring with all sorts of harbingers, rarely the other seasons. Fall, unlike other seasons, sort of sneaks up on us. Most people don’t realize it’s fall until they write the date on a check, and then say, “Hey, what happened to summer?”
There are, however, early signs of the season all around us. I was in a local store the other day and the kid stocking the shelves was putting out the Christmas merchandise. I looked at him, not saying a word. Smart kid read my mind. He said, “Yeah, I know.”
Today is the first day of fall. It sneaks in about 5:19 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time. So far I’ve not notice any abhorrent (meaning incompatible) behavior, like people trying to stand eggs on end or any of the other silliness people associate with the changing seasons.
Maybe, if we could live our lives by the phases of the moon as humans used to do, we wouldn’t be surprised when one day we step outside and realize we do, or do not, need that fleece pullover. That’ll never happen.
A good and frequent walk in the woods helps. Fall is the time we celebrate the beauty of dying things, just as three months ago we celebrated the radiance of sunshine warming the earth. And three months before that we celebrated the marvel of life returning to what we had feared was dead. And three months before that we marveled at Nature’s white blanket keeping warm all those things we hoped would come back.

Take your place on the Great Mandala, as it moves through your brief moment of time.
 --Peter Yarrow.