Tag Archives: Birds

Courage at Twilight: A Turtle and a Grebe

I waltzed up the river with strong strokes. Pull-rest-rest.  Pull-rest-rest.  The hen and her ducklings huddled tight against the bank looking every bit the bunch of muddy roots.  How do ducklings love their father drake? I wonder.  He has flown this stretch of river.  “Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” came the texts.  Is that how it is done, I wonder: four small typed words with a diminutive exclamation mark?  I handed Dad a thick old book, yellowed, wrapped in newspaper, in a red paper sack, to thank him for being my father.  Fiorello LaGuardia: the Italian Mayor of New York City who took on the Tammany Hall political machine, and won.  A black-crowned night heron rose from the riverbank with five-foot wings barred black and white, as silent as my waltzing river pondering.  How do his chicks say Happy Father’s Day? I wonder.  With urgent shrieks for regurgitated fish, no doubt, and by leaving the nest!  What a magnificent beautiful creature.  I imagine the carp fingerlings say nothing at all, glad not to be gobbled.  And I baked a pesto chicken orzo casserole and a sticky pudding cake full of dates and walnuts dribbled with hot toffee-cream syrup.  Oh, and first dibs to Dad on my book by Beryl Markham, an early pilot who flew single-props with open cockpits, who flew so intimately with planet earth, skimming the tall tree tops—she could see the waves and smiles of the farmers and they could see hers.  I have reached my three-mile turn-around too soon—I feel I could paddle up this river forever, relaxed and calm, not having the answers, and at peace with that unknowing.  My two youngest played cello-piano duets to Mom and Dad and me, moving us with their beauty and the music’s beauty.  “Rafting the river . . . I remember you naming every single type of butterfly we saw.  You knew everything about them.  And the trees and birds and wildflowers, too.  You taught me to look for the small and simple things, and remember the value they add to our lives.”  Thank you, son.  (I’ll have you write my epitaph.)  Maybe Bullock’s orioles chitter cheerfully to celebrate their fathers, flashing their oranges blacks and whites in their excitement.  I don’t know that little turtles thank their big-shell papas, sunning exclusively on fallen tree trunks, necks and legs stretched out pleasurably, imperiously, a knot of dried algae on one’s back.  I sent my sons-turned-fathers a handmade card with a personal note of admiration and encouragement and a token ten-dollar bill.  Does that count?  Yes, that counts—every sincere expression counts.  “Oh, my dear Daddy.  How I love and honor you and appreciate with deep gratitude all that you do for me.”  Thank you, sweet daughter of mine.  A Clark’s grebe with white face and black crown and piercing yellow beak and piercing scarlet eye dove and dove as I approached, then appeared twenty-five yards behind me.  What a magnificent beautiful creature!  His chicks would easily admire him.  “I love you Daddy!”  That’s how it’s done: with love.  I love you, too.

 

Pictures above and below: scenes from the Jordan River, in Utah, today.

Courage at Twilight: Wheat and Tares and Black-Capped Chickadees

Crab grass grew tall and broad amidst the chocking lily patch, the two nearly indistinguishable: the tares and the wheat, shoots intermingled and roots intertwined.  But I discerned the difference, and determined not to condemn the wheat to a life of struggle against the tares, determined to pluck the grass from the midst of the lily shoots.  The tares would be yanked and discarded not at the end of the world, but in the immediacy of now.  And I am proud to say I did not uproot a single lily by mistaken identity or carelessness, and the weeded lily patch, sans grass, seemed to sparkle clean and green under the enormous Austrian pines, from which hung a small birdhouse of my nondescript design: four walls and a gable roof.  A pair of meek and shy Black-capped Chickadees chattered softly at me for pulling the tares so close to their abode, confident enough to flit six feet away, but feeling too vulnerable to fly to the closer birdhouse.  “This fall I want to plant bulbs in all these beds,” Dad enthused to me from his chair, where he watched me weed.  “You can pick out the bulbs you want.”  How wonderful they would be, I imagined, excited at next spring’s prospect.  Dad asked me to cut off a large pine bough that hung its long heavy burden exclusively over the fence into the church parking lot.  I did, and dragged it around the block into our driveway for later sectioning, moving then to cut out the old deadwood trunks from the arctic blue willow bushes.  Dad thought Brian might like the wood for his fountain pen projects—he cuts branches into sanded rings, the bark still on, for pen pillows and pen beds and ink vial stands, which he posts about for admiring fellow fountain pen enthusiasts.  Our day’s chores complete, Mom and Dad and I sat at the dinner table enjoying leftover rice casserole, charmed by the long-beaked hummingbird seated momentarily at the feeder, charmed by the ebullient pretty songs of the house finches, charmed by the chickadee couple flitting from the pine boughs to the hole of their humble home.

Pictured above: new lily shoots with the grab grass carefully removed.

Pictured below: my son Brian’s fountain pen accessories,
featured on Etsy, Instagram, and YouTube.

Courage at Twilight: Sundry

Ely discovered water pooled on the laundry room floor and reported the flood to Mom. Together they mopped up the water with rags.  Appliance said he could have a new pump shipped from Washing in a few days.  I had procrastinated, and needed to wash my clothes that very day.  I focused on yard work, putting off my evening trip to the laundromat.  But when Terry and Pat, the nice neighbors, stopped by to visit, Mom told them about the washer and the laundromat and they insisted I come to their house to use their washer.  “Do you want me to do it for you?” Pat asked kindly, but I do not allow anyone handle my dirty laundry, and told her I would enjoy doing it, thank you.  Ely is a housecleaner.  Dad has vacuumed the carpets and swept and mopped the floors and cleaned the bathrooms and scrubbed the shower walls his whole married life, but has run out of strength, mobility, and steam.  Ely, a delightful, humble, thorough dual citizen, now takes care of what Mom and Dad can no longer take care of.  They do not call her the cleaning lady; they call her Ely, their friend and indispensable helper.  The house tidied, Brian and Avery arrived with two-year-old Lila to celebrate his 32nd birthday, and I was touched he wanted to celebrate with us.  We set up cornhole and ring toss and a PVC scaffold onto which one tosses golf balls joined by short ropes.  Lila objected to how my rope-tied-spheres hung from the rungs—“No! Gwampa Waja!” she insisted.  She repositioned each hanging rope according to her adorable imagination, delightedly proclaiming the decorated structure her Christmas tree.  At dinner, I decided ground sirloin is much tastier than hamburger, well worth the extra one dollar per pound.  I had prepared a birthday dessert from my French cookbook—Brian chose chocolate mousse, which I have mastered after many trials.  Into the dessert cups we jammed and lighted three candles.  Lila made sure her daddy blew them out correctly.  An unconventional birthday “cake,” still the result was superb (thank you Julia), with strong Pero substituting for strong coffee.  The sun dipped low behind the house, and the air quickly chilled.  Dad and I sat on patio chairs listening to the red House Finch sing with happy gusto, perched on a spiny blue spruce nearby.  “Listen to that little guy sing!” Dad hooted.  We commented on what a happy thing it is—a happy miraculous thing—that nature sings.

Courage at Twilight: Guinness and Treacle Bread

After watching me mix and knead breads and bakes for eight months, Mom and Dad informed me we were purchasing a bread mixer. NutriMill makes a Bosch lookalike for half the price, and we brought one home, along with a “baker’s pack” because I am a baker and a Baker.  On my first attempt, I dumped in all the ingredients and watched the dough not mix and the dough hook grab the poorly combined mass and whirl it around uselessly.  Hannah (and the owner’s manual) instructed me on pouring in the liquid ingredients first, turning the mixer on low, and adding the dry ingredients slowly.  The technique worked.  Our first success was Paul Hollywood’s Guinness and Treacle bread.  Into the bowl I poured a bottle of warm dark-and-stout beer, tablespoons of molasses, water, and yeast, and turned the mixer to level 1, while Hannah slowly tossed in the dry ingredients: whole wheat flour and strong white flour.  The dough hook mixed the trickling flour into the yeasty treacle-beer until we had a sticky dough that the dough hooks pummeled and whipped enthusiastically.  While the dough rested and rose, I sat at Mom’s laptop to help her with a Word document: she had made revisions accidentally using the Review tool and felt exasperated by the unwelcome blue insertions and red strikeout deletions.  “I promise you, Mom: one button-click and your document will be fixed.”  She was incredulous at the simple “Accept All Changes and Stop Tracking” function.  That task accomplished, I lifted and hauled off Mom’s cracked and broken chair mat, and laid the new mat in place—the chair casters would no more anchor the chair immovably in the hole.  Dad, in the meantime, had noticed how dusty the living room sofas had become, and was struggling with his carpet cleaner to shampoo the floral sofas.  “Look how nice they look!” he crowed: the sofas did look bright and brand new.  Just as the oven pre-heat bell sounded, I finished hanging the thistle seed sock feeders for the goldfinches, pine siskins, and house finches, which will land grasping the socks and pull and crack the tiny musky seeds one by one.  Mournfully, we had discarded the other feeders because falling masses of disfavored seeds attracted a family of rats, and we could not have rats, and so also could not have bird feeders, much to Dad’s sadness.  But rats will not be interested in empty Niger husks.  The socks happily hung, I peeled the risen Guinness dough onto the 400-degree stone, and the house filled with a most delicious aroma.

Courage at Twilight: Flicker

I have seen the Red-shafted Northern Flicker flash her orange primary underfeathers, and her white backside button, as she torpedo-dove from her hole in the snag.  I have heard the Flicker’s sad cry, piercing and irresistible.  I have watched the Flicker stand cantilevered on the trunk to feed her clamorous young.  But I have never heard the machine-gun rap of her beak on deadwood, as I did today, echoing through Dimple Dell.  But there she was, high in the dead cottonwood.  I know the bird better now, and love her more.

 

 

(Images from Birdsofafeather.org and Newsweek.com, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)

Learning to Speak Goose

Learning to Speak Goose

Kayaking for the two-dozenth time on the same stretch of the Jordan River, a natural phenomenon new to me showed itself as I paddled along upstream.  The river is full of such surprises, which it gives me the honor of witnessing, a few at a time, so as not to overwhelm my feelings of wonder, and not to dull my sense of the miraculous.  A gander, a Canada Goose, led a small pre-fledged gaggle of goslings upriver, the mama goose in the place of caboose.  I approached them carefully, paddling slowly against the current, to say hello.  And they responded by gathering speed and flicking their beaked heads nervously this way and that.  Though of course I had no intention of hurting them or frightening them, or even teasing them, nature dictated that they fear me.  And rightly so, for I am sure I seemed to them a giant malevolent alien goose-hunting weapon-wielding creature, easily capable of ending their lives.  The gander knew I was gliding faster than he could ever swim, and abandoned his effort to outpace me.  Switching strategies, he prepared for flight—a smart plan, with a good chance of success, since he could fly infinitely faster and higher than I could fly, though I wondered about his abandonment.  But he could not seem to launch, instead flapping his wings loudly and frantically on the water, as if hurt.

That Mr. Gander sure tricked me.  He fooled me good.  His antics made focusing on him irresistible.  Finally yanking my attention away from the frantic papa goose, I looked back to the mama goose and goslings to see how they fared, but saw only fading ripples.  They were gone, disappeared, and did not reappear while I sat and drifted, befuddled.  Resuming my upstream slog, I almost failed to notice the same number of goslings of the same age and fuzziness ensconced safely behind a leafy branch hanging low over the bank, some one hundred feet from the dive: clearly the same goslings who gave me the slip while I focused on the feigning father.  That gander had drawn my whole attention to him, for the sake and safety of his little ones, his progeny, and his mated partner.  I had failed to understand that by slapping his wings on the water he was signaling his objection to my invasion of family space, and warning me to keep away.  I had ignored his clear Goose-speak (I really need to learn Goose), and he had water-slapped away, not abandoning his family (of course), but protecting his family.  I will keep my distance next time the wings beat on the water, and respect the family space.  The Jordan is goose home, after all, and I am just a curious occasional uninformed rather rudely interloping human, who doesn’t know the language.

(The Jordan River, named by 1840s Mormon pioneers fleeing to Utah from religious persecution in the frontier United States, flows north from the freshwater Utah Lake into the vast fishless Great Salt Lake, reminding the refugees of the homeland of their God Jesus.)

Image of Goose Family by TheOtherKev from Pixabay 

They Fell from the Sky

They Fell from the Sky

Hundreds of them.  Eared Grebes.  The birds precipitated from inside crystalline clouds where the sunlight flashed in an infinity of ice atoms swirling and refracting in a frozen explosion of brilliance, as if the sun raged coldly right there inside the clouds.  The birds became utterly hopelessly disoriented in the icy intensity, blind, not knowing up from down.  Hundreds of grebes dropped from the mists to bounce into buildings, cars, trees, yards, and parking lots.  And there she stood, unmoving, in my parking space, her olive-brown feet stuck frozen to the ice.  My office key made a crude chisel for chopping around her toes – they bled and flaked skin already.  I wrapped her in my coat and sat her in a box by my desk, with cracker crumbs and a bowl of water.

The children begged to open the box and see what was scratching inside, and exhaled exclamations of wonder when they saw.  What IS it?  She’s an Eared Grebe.  Look at her pointy black beak, her long flaring golden feathers that look like ears, and her crimson eyes.  Do you know what you call a group of grebes?  A Water Dance!  Can’t you just picture the family flapping and paddling and splashing their delighted dance on the lake?

What are we going to do with her?  Can we fill the bath tub?  Our grebe paddled around with obvious enthusiasm.  What are we going to feed her?  How about fish!  Tub-side with a bag of goldfish, the children clamored for the privilege of feeding their bird.  Our compromise: eight hands held the bloated bag and poured.  She darted after the fish in a flash of black and gold and red, a little paddling package of magnificence.  Look at her feet – no webbing.  Look at how her toes unhinge with little retractable paddles.  Wow! came in whispers.

That needling question of what to do with the bird in the bathtub?  We would try a nearby pond, and hope for the best.  The children watched her swim away and they looked sad and happy and I sensed how singular a blessing to have welcomed that bit of living feathered grace into our human home, to release her willfully, to be moved by her wildness and beauty.  And I hoped a small sliver of that exquisiteness would stay behind in memories of hinged toes and golden ears and red red eyes, and of creatures that dance on the water.

(Image by David Mark from Pixabay.) 

Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season.

 

 

Songs of Spring

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How delightful are the sights and sounds of Spring.  Winter has lain upon the land so long that we have almost forgotten the sounds of warm-weather life.  With the melting snow, the greening grass, and the budding trees, we know that Spring is coming.  Best of all, the migrating birds are returning and singing their beautiful, unique songs.  The yellow-breasted Meadowlark is a favorite, with its complicated melody.  I hope you enjoy this poem about the songs of Spring.

Songs of Spring

Ice and snow begin
to yield to a longer sun.

Meadowlarks have returned
singing melodies:
sogladwearetobeback!
arentyouhappytohearus?
sogladwearetobesingingandsingingandback!

A hundred little blackbirds
in a bare tree top prattle,
zippatappazaptap!
zikkatikkazakkatat!

Robin hops quietly
in the greening grass,
stops to reconnoiter,
searching,
one eye for juicy brown earthworms,
the other for the cat.

Chapter 3: Hawk

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–In the presence of goodness, good people rejoice.–

My boots crunch loudly on the loose and frozen gravel, rousing common sparrows from their cold roosts in the willow and wild rose bushes.  Despite being leafless in December, the bushes seem an impenetrable tangle of twigs and dead leaves.  I hear, rather than see, the birds fluttering and tweeting within.  I have bundled myself against the bitter cold, and wonder how these almost weightless creatures survive Winter.  I imagine them huddled in their houses, mostly protected from the wind, their feathers puffed out to gather insulating air, with temperatures sinking to just above zero.  I marvel that these birds constantly peep and sing, fluttering about with the energy of jubilation.  I envy them their unconditional happiness.  I have come to appreciate their enthusiasm, to rely upon their unassailable cheerfulness. Continue reading