In 2008, I went to Machias Seal Island in the Bay Of Fundy to photograph the Atlantic Puffins. Though it feels as if it were decades ago, it wasn't long ago at all. One of the big reasons it seems so long ago is that I've become a much better photographer in that short span of time. I would like very much to go again one day to take better pictures by exercising what I've learned. My images would be sharper, better exposed and composed differently. When I was there, it was the end of the season, so there was very little feeding of young going on; I didn't capture them with mouth fulls of fish. Most of the birds had poop on them messing up their breasts from sliding in and out of the nesting cavities, too. I'd like pristine, white, poop-free birds next time. Machias Seal Island also boasts other types of birds, like Razorbills. I did get shots of one Razorbill, but they had mostly left the island for southern climates before I arrived. Until I had the chance to look back through a few hundred photos, I had forgotten that I had seen even a single Razorbill.
I have a confession to make. Back then, I shot only in just Jpeg format. It's an admission which pegged me as a rank rooky, too. That's not the end of the world, but it does limit how fully I can develop them. Jpeg images are comprised of compressed data, so there are limits to how much developing can be done. Crudely stated, Jpeg images are akin to hard copy photographs, versus negatives. Each time you do something to a Jpeg, then save it, you must then make a copy of that copy to go any further with it. Each time you make a copy of anything, you lose a piece of what it was in the original form. This principle applies to copying anything whether it's photography, painting, or making cars. Ideally, you always work from an original. In the digital world, the negative would be a RAW image. RAW just means that the data has not been processed in any way. You must do everything to it to do anything with it at all, even print it. But, you can do plenty because, every bit of information is there to work with. Back in 2008, I didn't know that, so I only shot in Jpeg. Today, that means that when reviewing any of those images, I'm limited to what I can do to correct the flaws. Any of the photos I took then are what they are and can't be improved on much with post shoot editing.
Today, I shoot in RAW format and Jpeg. This way, I have the digital negative to work with and a quick, working copy, the Jpeg - to use as a reference. Shooting in both formats has several technical advantages, but mostly, it appeases my basest anxieties about not having enough versions of an image to work with. Additionally, double product for every shutter click handsomely fuels my compulsive tendencies. A major disadvantage to working this way, though, is that all of this stuff has to be stored. It's not uncommon for me to shoot thirty gigabytes of images in a day. For you point and shoot photographers, this would be equivalent to a 526 MB card (what most P&S rigs come with) sixty times. To store all of this, and have it accessible while I'm working, I have five external hard drives running and a sixth in a box. That's six terabytes of data. Photographically, this is equivalent to building a garage, putting all your junk in it, then leaving your car in the driveway. Can you say HOARDER?
Now that I've bared my soul on that matter, I'm going to put another one out there. I did not back up the data. You heard me. Now, before all of you smug, techie types jump out of the bushes with your finger wagging admonishments, I want you to know that I thought I had backed it all up. I had however, been sloppy about where I did my back ups. Suddenly, one morning a full terabyte drive quit. Within twenty-four hours, while I was trying to figure out what had happened, a second drive quit. And poof went all the puffins, once in a life time Bald eagle shots, mink, otters, my children.........shall I go on? Hands shaking, palms sweating, I started making phone calls to my techie friends. They all said two things. And, because I can read minds, I know there was a third thing they were thinking, but did not say. What they did say was, "Don't panic!" And, "Where are your back ups?" The unspoken thought, which to me was loud and clear, was "Phew! Glad it isn't me!" They each had words of useful advice and information which I followed. I was told that most likely, the drives themselves didn't fail, just the enclosures housing them with cooling fans and stuff to tell the computer how to read them. Following the advice of my friends, I did not smash open the boxes with a hammer. In the case of one drive it was true that only the enclosure had failed. That was a quick fix and I could easily recover all the data on the drive. In the case of the second drive, the bigger one with double the data, and naturally, all the stuff I thought I had to have, the drive had failed. No fans in the world would give me back my pictures. And this is where me and my friends parted ways. They all said, while backing away slowly and not making eye contact, that data recovery was the twilight zone of computer geekdom. They could not help me; I was on my own.
I, of all people, now know just how tedious this is, so I'll cut to the chase. It took weeks, and lots of money and cortisol-belly-fat-stress-producing hormones, but I got my pictures back. At least, most of them. After the drive manufacturer announced that it would cost $1,200.00 to recover the data, I set out on a mission to do it cheaper and I won. I downloaded a data recovery program that worked. As the files were resurrected from the busted drive, thousands of photographs swam up before me like drowning victims from the deep. I revisited my puffins, a Razorbill I didn't know I had, goofy photos of my husband at a wedding I didn't remember we had attended, and more. I have posted here more than necessary pictures of the Puffins, simply because I can. They aren't good, but I'm so happy to have them that doesn't matter. Each of them is a reminder of survival of our near death experience.
What I learned from this harrowing event was to back up the data. I know that sounds cliche and so simple as to not be worth taking up air time, but that's just the very hazard of it. It's those things that we take for granted that we fail to back up until they are gone. Often, we don't even know what we've lost until it's too late to recover. Tonight, call everyone you have ever loved and tell them that you love them and how much, before your drive fails.
Whenever we have a big weather event, there are those of us who look forward to the aftermath, as long as our properties have not been smashed to bits. Interesting things get blown to the ground from the trees and in from the ocean onto the shores. Big seas can turn over rubble and debris on the beaches revealing things that were previously buried. I found this pristine arrow head on Popham Beach in February 2009 after a brutal storm. It was on the sand just as you see it here, looking like a little Christmas tree. That storm produced devastating coastal erosion. Vast chunks of beach were lost when the ocean carved it's way into the land clawing sand away from the roots of trees. Near where I found this artifact is an ancient Pitch Pine Maritime Forest. I imagine that centuries ago, an Abanaki Indian pulled back his bow, then let his arrow fly at a rabbit, missing the rabbit, and losing his bow. This arrow head had probably been buried ever since, until that storm revealed it.
Though there was a lot of junk scattered on the sand, my eye caught the shape of the arrow head right away. I have developed a good eye for picking out shapes that are out of sync from their surroundings - birds sitting in trees or in the sky, foxes in the bushes, or deer dancing on a distant beach. "How do you see this stuff?!" My husband and friends often remark. "She doesn't miss anything," my husband likes to brag. The truth is, I miss plenty. But, apparently, I also see much more than most of the people I know. I see layers and details in the same scene that my friends completely miss. This talent can be annoying. My visual world is akin to looking at a painting and seeing all the pointillist's dots rather than the impressionistic scene, Seurat surreal. Sometimes, I'm rewarded though, as in this pointed find.
"Little Auk" is another name for Dovekie
A week ago, we had an enormous storm with sixty mile an hour wind gusts. For two days afterward, the seas were eight feet high in front of our pier. On the horizon line, we could see waves twenty to thirty feet high, towering like buildings. This Dovekie was blown in to our cove from off shore. Dovekies are the smallest of the Auks, or Puffin type birds. It's about 7 1/2 inches long, smaller than a Mourning Dove. It's hard for me to fathom a being this small living out on the Atlantic Ocean riding on those immense waves, but they do. Dovekies are chubby, adorable little birds with stumpy, Sparrow-like bills. I especially liked its feet which reminded me of a duckling. There was something very innocent and endearing about this bird, though it was dead.
Dovekies breed and nest in Greenland. There are huge colonies there estimated at 30 million birds. In the winter, they come slightly south, sometimes along the New England coast. That's their idea of southern migration. They float in giant rafts out to sea feeding on small fish by diving. Storms that last for days, like the one we just had with sustained easterly winds, make feeding conditions unsuitable. Massive wrecks of starving birds can be driven landward. In the winter of 1932-33, the largest wreck recorded in North America saw Dovekies raining down on the streets of New York city. Large numbers washed up on the eastern seaboard from Florida to Nova Scotia. The visual of hundreds of the darling, diminutive Dovekies falling from the sky is a thing of nightmares! It has changed things for me forever. From now on, when we have torrential rains, I will declare "It's raining dogs and Dovekies out there!" Unlike "It's raining cats and dogs," raining Dovekies makes sense.
Thanks to wikipedia.com, allaboutbirds.com and whatbird.com for some of the information.
•Montevecchi, W. A., and I. J. Stenhouse. 2002. Dovekie (Alle alle). In The Birds of North America, No. 701 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
I had recently made an appointment to see a dermatologist to look at my aging, spotty face which seems to be growing barnacles. Though I had been referred by my primary care physician, the dermatologist could not see me until June of next year. So, yesterday, when the dermatologist's office called with a cancellation, I dropped everything and flew there like the witch on a broom my face says I've become. The good news is that I don't have anything malignant growing on my face, though my disposition could be said to be malignant. I do have a slew of patches that are pre-cancerous, however.
Six places needed to be blasted with liquid nitrogen. I had this done once before, which is why my physician sent me to the face expert. It hadn't been a big deal then, and time had faded my recall of the depth of the experience. Plus, my more current frame of reference for liquid nitrogen is cooking, not cancer treatment. The coolest, nouvelle cuisine chefs use "L2," as those in the know call it, when fashioning "amuse bouche" or mouth amusements. Fruits are flash frozen and soups carved into table ready, frozen sculptures when prepared with L2, also known as "dry ice." Ice cream freezes so quickly with L2 that the ice crystals are super small. When the ice cream hits the tongue, instead of melting, it evaporates filling the mouth with a blast of delightful, gaseous essence - amuse bouche!
I can tell you that when the L2 hit my face six times, I was not amused. And, from this Cupid's pucker of a sweet bouche rolled more than delightful, gaseous essence; I swore like a pirate! I come by the inclination to swear honestly. Both of my parents were quick to launch vulgarities of the most hair curling order and didn't hesitate to do so in front of us children. My father, with an undisguised hint of pride and peculiar affection, often said of my mother that she had "a mouth like a sewer rat." They reasoned that exposing us to world class profanity at home would render swearing a blase' form of communication. Our language choices, when wanting to impress upon someone the intensity of our feelings, would evolve more highly than to just jump quickly to profanity. They were wrong. I for one, love a good, choking mouthful of the F word in times of trouble, though I did withhold that in the doctor's office.
When I left, my face felt like I had walked face-first into a wasps' nest! Having thought that this wouldn't be a big deal, I had planned to meet my husband for lunch afterward and to do a dozen errands. I could have begged off dining in a public place with my beloved, but the errands had to be done, no matter what. Christmas is coming, whether my face looks like I took a load of bird shot or not. So, I sucked it up and went to lunch at a local diner. I held my head high and dared any customers or the waitresses whizzing by with plate loads of meatloaf and mashed to stare at my wrecked face. My prince of a husband treated me to a lobster roll, thanked me for taking care of myself and told me repeatedly that I was beautiful.
After lunch, I had nearly forgotten the whole thing by the time I got to my car. When I saw this Red-bellied woodpecker in the trees, my amuse bouche came back completely.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are no longer uncommon in Maine, though they used to be. Like Northern Cardinals and Mockingbirds, their population has crept northward over the past decade. Five or six years ago, a Red-bellied woodpecker reported in Maine was are rarity worth twitching, or chasing after to see. Then, in 2004, the most wide-spread invasion of Red-bellied woodpeckers ever recorded occurred in Maine, Upstate New York and Maritime Canada. So many of them were suddenly reported on the birding list serves that it was clear the sightings were not those of simply a few, fall migratory wanderers. Why the birds came this far north remains uncertain. Possibly, breeding had been so successful in the spring of 2004 that the first year birds expanded into northern, un-occupied spaces to set up new breeding territories. It may also be that a food source, like acorns, declined, forcing the birds to look elsewhere.
Red-bellied woodpeckers eat fruit and berries and insects. In the south, they hang on hummingbird feeders occasionally. In these photos, the bird had banged on the cracks in the maple tree several times. Their tongues extend two inches beyond the end of the bill. Twice, I saw her pull out the brown lumps you see here. I'm not sure what it was, but she liked it enough to try several times for more.
Red-bellied woodpeckers are about nine and half inches long, the size of a Hairy woodpecker. They have a rolling 'R' call and an undulating flight pattern, both very recognizable. The bird in these images is female. Her red head patch does not extend all the way to her bill. Males have a red patch from the nape of the neck to the bill. The "red belly," is an inconspicuous patch that's barely visible for field identification. So, why are they called "Red-bellied?" I'm guessing because "Red-headed" was a name already taken. We get Red-headed woodpeckers here, but they are very rare. A siting would be twitch-worthy. Maybe next year, Red-headed woodpeckers will be as common here as Red-bellied woodpeckers have recently become. And perhaps by then, my bee-stung looking face will have calmed down enough that no one will notice that anymore, either.
Great Egrets are elegant birds, standing almost four feet tall. They are migratory in Maine. I only see one or two each year.
Great Egret, Center Pond - Phippsburg
Though I'm a wildlife photographer, I've never been on a safari. I'm not waiting for big game on an African savanna. I'm mostly just in my living room wearing my bathrobe, very much in the little leagues of the ball game. Just the same, I have to be prepared for whatever presents itself, even if it's unlikely to be a tigress slurping water from a pool at sundown, warm light filling her deep brown eyes. The birds and animals here in my home town are all the big game I have and generally, all the big game I need. To be ready for them, one of the first things I do every day even before I brush my teeth, is adjust my camera's exposure settings for the light of the day. I pick the film speed, shutter speed and aperture that will give me the best advantage if suddenly, something appears. I intend to be at least minimally ready by hedging my exposure bets as best as I can. Frequently, when a bird or or animal has turned up, had I spent time fumbling with the camera settings, I would have missed the shot. I always have the camera with me, because I don't ever want to be looking for it in the golden moment a subject pops out of the bushes. Preparedness has served me well. Nonetheless, I often don't get the shots I hope for and find something wrong with nearly every photograph I take.
Sometimes, when a subject shows up, I have to take the shot even though I know the conditions aren't good, because the beast may not come back. That aside, I also have a merciless inner critic crabbing at me constantly. "Those feathers should be sharper," "there's too much background business behind the bird," "I wish I'd used a flash." Frequently, I wish I could take them over. Invariably, I look at an image and think "Oh, if only my aperture had been smaller! I would have had more depth of field!" Or, "What the hell was I thinking? ISO-schmiso! I should have had a faster film speed." And so it goes, leaving me like an exhausted race horse, flogged nearly to death by a rider it can't shake. About the only regret that I never have is not taking the photo at all. I haven't quit and I keep trying. I've learned something from every photograph I've taken, regardless of how frustrating or disappointing its outcome. Each time I press the shutter, I'm hopeful that this time, I'll nail it.
There have been a lot of things in my life that I wish I could do over. Many people asked, even assumed that I would have photographed those hunters that terrorized me a few weeks ago. Had I photographed their boat, the warden could have tracked the registration and caught them. But, alas, I wasn't thinking about my camera when that happened. The gun fire, yelling, and barbaric threatening dumped me back to a horrible place I had not been in a long time.
Having nothing to do with demonic duck hunters, I already had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a neuro-chemical problem some people acquire after experiencing traumatic events. The "flight or fight" brain chemistry gets turned on as it should, but then never completely shuts off. My brain simmers in a brew of fear all the time. Something as innocuous as a slammed door or backfiring engine can send me diving under a bed or running for the nearest exit. Though my thinking self knows that all is okay in my world, my primal protective mechanisms over react. My heart races, my breathing quickens, chest pain pushes on my heart and often, I cry. I take medications that help. I've also lived with my quick-to-startle jumpiness for fifteen years, and I've learned to manage it, to some extent. But, every once in a while, something happens like the duck hunting episode, that suddenly sends me overboard, awash in chemical messages that I'm in danger.
My PTSD is the legacy of a violent marriage. For nearly two decades, I lived with a sick man in an even sicker relationship. After all, there were two of us to make it that way. I knew the day that I married him that I had made a terrible mistake. It was a mistake that would cost me for the rest of my life, long after he was gone. Those dark, ugly times crash in on me when a here-and-now event busts open my flood gates. I ask myself, "If there was a do-over, would I do it again?" The obvious answer is "Of course not," but, it's not that simple. Like a failed photograph, I don't always know what I should have done differently, only that the end result wasn't what I had imagined. From that marriage, I have two of the most incredible children a mother could ever have dreamed of; I wouldn't trade them for anything. And, now, with David, I have the fairy tale life I had wished for with their father. Had I kept my heart in my pocket way back then, I wouldn't have any of these things now. It's for all the bad photographs I've taken that I'm a decent photographer today.
In the midst of the scary, stressful times before I escaped my children's father and took them into hiding, our lives behind closed doors were living hell. On the outside, though, we looked Hallmark good. I kept up such exhaustive pretenses of health and happiness that neither friend nor family knew what was really going on. To this end, I hosted elaborate holiday dinners every year. When I bought groceries for Thanksgiving, I always filled two carts. As I shopped, I arranged my purchases carefully so that there would be room and things didn't get crushed. One year, toward the end of the marriage when things were at their worst and my organizational skills were rapidly eroding, I had a shopping disaster.
While pulling one full cart behind me and pushing a second ahead, they were becoming too much to maneuver around the aisles. So, I left them, sought out items, then came back to the carts and tossed them in. On one of these forays, while trying to choose vanilla extract, I became aware of an odd sound. Over the tinny Christmas carols issuing from the supermarket ceiling, I heared a shooshing noise. It was coming from one of my carts at the end of the aisle. Thinking I imagined it, I turned back to the vanilla extract, but the noise got louder.
At the very bottom of the fullest cart, under a ton of carelessly piled groceries was a can of whipped cream. The weight of the groceries crushed the cover then forced the nozzle through the wire grid of the cart bottom. Whipped cream was discharging full throttle from my cart! Panicking, I tried to get to it, but there were just too many things piled on top. A mountain of whipped cream was building as if tectonic plates had collided under my cart! Helplessly, I watched Mount Everest grow. I tried to move the cart, but the cream kept coming! The loud, shooshing sound was building as the pressurized can spewed forth.
When I started laughing uncontrollably, customers stared nervously. A lady ventured near, keeping her back to the opposite wall, as far away as she could get but still pass by me and snatch a bottle of vanilla extract. Her husband scurried after her, both of them staring at me and the mounting, suspicious looking mess on the floor. "It's just whipped cream, folks!" Tears streamed down my cheeks as I laughed. I could hardly breathe! I laid my head onto the groceries and squeezed my legs together trying not to pee myself (I always have to pee when I'm in the supermarket). Between bouts of hysteria, I babbled to the nervous shoppers "REALLY! It's just whipped cream!"
Eventually, the can was emptied and I stopped laughing. A store clerk appeared with an inadequate roll of paper towelling and an orange 'wet floor' hazard cone. I apologized profusely and tried to help her clean up the mess. "Oh, don't worry about this," she explained. "It happens more than you know. Out in the warehouse, those cans are going off all the time. We call them 'cream bombs!'" Good to know, I thought. I felt like a cream bomb myself. A passing customer surveyed the two of us just as the clerk asked if I'd like for her to get me a replacement can. Eyeing me, he said "Lady, if I were you, I'd stick to Cool Whip in a tub."
If, one day there are do-overs for these things, this is what I've learned for the next time around:
1. I'll be ready with the camera if the hunters return. I'll shoot back in the way that I know how.
2. I'll always take photographs, good ones and bad ones. You don't get any of them, unless you commit to the shutter.
3. I won't ever hide my heart in my pocket and,
4. I'll always choose real, whipped cream, no matter what the risks.
If you would like to see more photographs of Great Egrets, click here: Great egret
A few days ago, I had a mammogram which prompted maudlin, pouty feelings about getting older. The list of things one must seemingly do to keep the old carcass going feels endless. No sooner have I completed the "crush-o-gram," as I call it, than I must present for a bone density scan. I could say no to this and just wait until I fall down, then crumble to the ground, a pile of dust and broken bones. But, Sally Field, whom I'll always remember as The Flying Nun, says I must, so submit I will. After all, who would argue with The Flying Nun? I've also had to make an appointment with a dermatologist for assorted "skin things," though they can't see me until June of next year. My face may fall off in the mean time, but I'll just have to get in line with the rest of the apparently flourishing dermatology market. There are a lot of us out there. Thankfully, I'm not due for a colonoscopy until next year. Like the Christmas shopping days count down pounded into us every day lately, I'll be counting down for next year. Soon, you'll hear me on the TV and the radio, "Three hundred and sixteen days until my colonoscopy!" "Only two months until my colonoscopy!" "It's not too late all you Midnight shoppers! Tomorrow is my colonoscopy!" You'll think to yourself, maybe even say out loud, "Shut up already!" And so I should, because I'm lucky to be alive. I'm lucky that I don't yet have any of the maladies these tests are intended to detect. I'm just advanced enough in age to have learned to fear that I might. So a-testing I will go.
Besides fear of disease, age has also taught me a few other things. Most importantly, I've learned that I really don't know much of anything at all. The more I learn about things, the less I seem to know in general about the big stuff, like the meaning of life. I've also learned that I no longer have to explain nor rationalize my values. I gave that up in my forties. Now, I simply embrace when I feel something is good or wrong; that's all that is required. I need not debate the logic with anyone and especially not with myself. I've also learned that the life 'firsts' are getting further and further apart, so I'd better pay attention.
On my way home from my mammogram while deeply engrossed in a self absorbed pout, I saw this sunset. I didn't hesitate to stop and photograph the stunning scene. Millions of sunset photographs have been taken before, but each sunset is unique - a life first for the viewer. It will only happen in that moment and never exactly the same again. At the second of it's greatest brilliance it will be suddenly gone.
There's nothing special about these birds, either, though each one is a living being, as unique as a sunset. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Hermit Thrushes have been photographed gazillions of times, also. When I see them, or hear their calls in the trees, I get a shivery thrill. I've rescued them after window strikes then held them in my hands. To feel a live bird in the palm of my hand is inexplicably magical. The essence of its life infused my skin and travelled up my arm to my own heart every time, a tiny pulse of understanding of the meaning of life.
At the end of this past duck hunting season, while hundreds of water fowl were having their last moments on earth, I had a life first. I had picked up a pile of yard debris and was about to toss it into the ocean on the cliff-side of our property when a boat with hunters arrived in front of our pier. Every year, hunters come into the cove. I don't like it, but I had accepted it. The gunfire riles up both my dog and I, but presumably, the hunters have licences and it's legal, so that's the breaks. Up until now, whenever hunters appeared, if I made my presence in the yard known, they left. None of them wanted to discharge a weapon within sight of a human being. I know some really nice people, people I would call my friends, who hunt. I've tried to tell myself that hunting is okay; that it serves some greater purpose that I haven't understood. I've tried to convince myself that hunting is a humane means of herd control and "migratory bird population control," as a game warden would later tell me. But the truth is, killing for sport has never sat right with me, so I've never been totally okay with hunting. Until now. Now, I know unequivocally what my position is.
There were five hunters in the boat about three hundred feet away when I threw my armload of sticks over the cliff. They looked right at me, but instead of moving on, they commenced to blast away! Bird shot scampered across the water surface as my dog ran for the door, tail between his legs. I screamed at the top of my lungs. I screamed so loudly that I was hoarse for hours. "No! No! Stop!" I yelled, waving my arms frantically. One of the hunters waved to me in mock greeting. "Ha ha ha ha ha!" I could hear them jeering as they waved at me from the boat. "Go! Go, get the hell out of here!" I screeched waving them out of the cove. Still screaming, I had started to cry when a hunter standing in the bow of the boat shouldered his weapon and aimed at me. "She looks like a duck; let's shoot her!" He yelled while pointing his gun at my head. Peels of laughter rolled from the other hunters. Two of them waved, taunting and laughing. Suddenly, one of them bellowed, "Look! There's one!" Roughly a hundred feet off the bow, a lone eider at the end of its molt, unable to fly, bobbed on the water. Hardly looking, a man swung his gun around and blew the duck out of the water in a puff of feathers. Quickly, the helmsman spun the boat around. The shooter yanked the decimated duck from the drink, passing it off to the hunter that had threatened to shoot me. He flailed the eider like a ragged flag back and forth in the air at me while the hyenas waved and hooted beside him.
Howling like a wounded animal myself, I ran into the house and dialed 911. To the credit of law enforcement, my report was taken very seriously. Dispatch notified the game warden who was an hour away. Though he came as quickly as he could, the hunters were long gone when he arrived. I gave additional details, filled out forms, showed him where they fired from and where I had stood. He took evidentiary photographs. But, to date, the hunters have not been caught.
Eventually, I found my dog cowering under my bed and with him, I found a truth. In the emotional aftermath I discovered a conviction I didn't know I had. Hunting is wrong. Sport hunting is optional, not life sustaining. There is no justification for killing for entertainment. I've had rough things happen to me in my life. Sadly, some of them have involved violence. But this was the first time anyone pointed a loaded gun at me and threatened to shoot. The fleeting moment, when I thought I might be shot and my life taken, showed me another glimmer of the meaning of life. Some things are simply better understood in their absence, like a sunset after the sun goes down or a still, flightless bird.
"The Tree Of Life," photographed in the safety of my kitchen.
I started this post as a Wordless Wednesday, but could not keep my mouth shut. These flowers are Johnny-Jump-Ups, also known as Heartsease. In my gardens in coastal Maine, they are the first and last flowers to bloom. The Johnnies jump up in April continuing through November. In years past, I have photographed them coming up through the snow. Native to the Pyrenees and Spain, violas escaped from gardens and naturalized across this country. They are the progenitor of the familiar pansy.
Johnny-Jump-Ups are also called Heartsease with a long history in herbalism. The viola has been used to treat epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases and eczema. It has expectorant properties, and so has been used in the treatment of chest complaints such as bronchitis and whooping cough. A diuretic, it's been used in treating rheumatism and bladder inflammation. Also, the flowers were considered good for diseases of the heart, from which may have come its popular name of Heartsease as much as from belief in it as a love potion.
A quirk of some violas is the elusive scent of the flowers which temporarily desensitises the receptors of the nose, preventing further scent from being detected from the flower until the nerves recover.
When just opened, Viola flowers are used to decorate salads or in stuffings for poultry or fish. Deserts like soufflés and creams can be flavoured with essence of Viola. The young leaves are edible raw or cooked. The flowers and leaves of some varieties have a distinct vanilla flavor with hints of wintergreen, delicious in salads. Candied violet or crystallized violet is preserved with a coating of egg white and sugar and still made commercially in Toulouse, France. Violet syrup is also made in France from the flowers' extract. In the United States, the syrup is used to make violet scones and marshmallows.
Johnny-Jump-Ups, Viola ordorata are also used to make perfume. Because it comes and goes when it turns off the sense of smell, it's thought of as a flirty fragrance.
In the language of flowers and speaking to the long time popularity of the flowers, Johnny-Jump-Ups have many other names:
Wild Pansy, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Love-in-Idleness, Live-in-Idleness, Loving Idol, Love Idol, Cull Me, Cuddle Me, Call-me-to-you, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, Meet-me-in-the-Entry, Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery (that sounds rude, now doesn't it?), Three-Faces-under-a-Hood (so does that), Kit-run-in-the-Fields, Pink-o'-the-Eye, Kit-run-about, Stepmother, Godfathers and Godmothers, Herb Trinitatis, Herb Constancy, Pink-eyed-John, Bouncing Bet, Flower o'luce, Bird's Eye and Bullweed.
Call it what ever you wish, where ever you wish to call it, the tiny violas give my heart ease whenever I see them. In the spring, I think "Johnny has jumped up - winter is over!" In the late fall, I think "Johnny's still jumping -summer can't really be gone." How can you go wrong with a flower that can be used to treat a snotty nose or a broken heart, to flavor a marshmallow or scone? Now if only I can get violas to take the rap when I run at the mouth on a Wordless Wednesday. Don't blame me; the flowers made me do it.
Mourning Doves are plentiful in Maine. I saw fifty of them in these trees above a Phippsburg bird feeder.
Sadly, and sometimes annoyingly, we have a lot of bird strikes on our windows. At peak fall migration, it's not uncommon to have an average of six hits an hour. This is a lot to me, especially as my heart quickens each time I hear that dreadful thunk against the glass. Every time, I rush from whatever I'm doing to see who was claimed by a pane and what I can do for them if they weren't killed instantly on impact.
This year, there were so many strikes and so often that I kept a cardboard box in the living room, ready to receive the latest victim. I had it lined with soft, fluffy, comforting fabric. I'll admit, I'm not sure who the material comforted, me or the dazed birds. Strikes have included the smallest - hummingbirds and kinglets, to the largest - a Sharp-shinned hawk and every kind of bird in between. I have tried all of the solutions to stop this. I have moved bird feeders away, put decals on the windows, hung things on the insides and outsides of the windows, all to no avail. The only thing I haven't done is put up net barricades, nor have I moved out. Would the birds still hit the windows if I moved out of the house? If they hit the window anyway and no one was here to hear it, would it make a sound? That simpleton's philosophical question leaves me wondering.
Though I haven't managed to stop birds intent on suicide, I have become pretty adept at saving the ones whose plans didn't come together. My save rate is about 90%. This is my recipe:
(this is not medical, veterinary nor avian rehabilitation advice nor endorsement, just my recipe)
1. Act quickly. Snatch the bird up the minute it hits the deck. This prevents predators from getting it before it sobers up enough to take off on its own. This also prevents hypothermia. Birds get cold quickly even if it seems warm out to you.
2. Do not hesitate. Move with a firm, sure hand. Usually, I put a towel over the bird then scoop it up in the towel. I think this reduces the bird's stress because it can't see me. I may only be fooling myself, however. This isn't science. It also stops the bird from struggling. I'm used to it, but bird's have sharp, pointed little claws and feet and it can startle the rescuer when they dig into the hand. It's not productive for the rescuer to drop the victim when this happens. A towel prevents that.
3. Keep the bird straight, so that if there is bone or joint damage, the rescuer doesn't worsen the damage.
4. Be prepared. Have a cardboard box at the ready, lined with something like a towel to keep the bird warm. Don't wait to build the emergency room after the victim has arrived. Be ready.
5. Close the box and secure the top. The bird may become active and ready to depart before you realize it. It WILL try to get out and WILL be able to open the box like a monkey from a cage. You would be surprised how a little crack of light will inspire them to escape. I have a lot of experience with birds flying around my living room. So, believe me.
6. Leave the victim alone. Do not look in the box. It's tempting. You want to see how the patient is doing, get a peak at it, coo a little to it. Don't. Your big, gruesome grinning face leering down into the box only terrifies the stressed bird more. Think back - a primal memory from before you had speech: You, helpless in your crib.....your wart faced, Aunt Esther hovering above you like the flaming Hindenburg. That's what you're doing to the bird by looking into the box. Resist the urge to give that gift.
When the bird comes around, it will start to make scratching noises in the box. When it begins to make enough of a ruckus, proceed to step seven.
7. DO NOT OPEN THE BOX! Take the box out of the house. Choose a location free of predators, make sure your dog is in the house. Make sure that you are in a place where the bird can fly to a safe branch if it's ready. Do not open the box while at the top of the Empire State Building or other high structure from which the possibly flightless bird will certainly fall to its death. A wounded bird can't fly any better than you can. Set the box on a table, the hood of your car or other stable platform. Open the box and step away. If the bird is ready to fly, it will zoom out of that box so fast you may barely even see it go. Rejoice and be thankful; you have done a glorious thing. Saving that life may balance out some of the really crappy, regrettable stuff you've done and will probably do another day.
8. If the bird doesn't take off, close the box and start over.
Note: Don't try to feed the bird. Don't put food or water in the box. It will just make a damp mess. A freaked-out injured bird isn't going to eat or drink your offering of love. The plan is that it will be well enough soon to go fend for itself in its natural environment.
A few weeks ago, a Mourning Dove hit the window. I sprung into action like a well oiled machine, jump starting my M.A.S.H unit into high gear. However, after faithfully completing the emergency protocol enumerated above, the bird did not fly. Nor did it die, so I called Avian Haven, the nearest wild bird rescue and rehabilitation facility. They told me to bring the bird to them forthwith and without further delay which I did. I was eager to rush my wounded bird to freedom.
Freedom, as it turns out, is a long ways away. Avian Haven is located in Freedom, Maine ninety-nine miles from my doorstep. I didn't hesitate to go, but it did take all day. Most working folks couldn't take the time. I pondered the gasoline cost. According to AAA, it costs about a dollar a mile to run a car. On the way, I stopped to use a restroom at a fast food establishment, using water and chemicals, paper towels and electricity. I got a cup of coffee in a paper cup. Most assuredly, the coffee beans were not shade grown. My expensive rescue mission prompted me to mourn more than my ailing Mourning dove; it had left a hefty carbon foot print and was expensive.
Mourning doves are plentiful in Maine. In other states, regarded as a nuisance and as game birds, they are shot for sport and out of irritation. Even the Avian Haven people weren't too choked up, though they did their jobs swiftly and caringly. Upon arrival, they whisked her away to intensive bird care, burning up more energy and resources to save her. They gave her a patient ID, "MoDo # 1000." They get lots of them there.
On the long, birdless trip home, I had time to think. Was it worth all of that to save a bird so common, a bird that wouldn't live more than a couple of years anyway - a bird that after release would get snatched by a cat or strike a window and die? What was the value of that life? Did I have a cosmic debt to the bird to save it because it's problems were caused by man, or woman's window? In a moment of enthusiasm, I had volunteered to be a future transporter to the facility for injured birds from far flung places. After all, Freedom is a long ways away. I decided that if I received the call, I would honor the commitment I had made, but I had doubts.
Only a few days passed before I was called to transport the Barred owl seen here. It had been ensnared in a driving range net at a country club, left to dangle in the dark over night. The golf pro knew only that it was an owl, though not the species. When I met him for the pick up, the bird was in a cardboard box with a towel over the top. Following my own protocol, I didn't look into the box. I put it behind me on the seat and headed north.
Tooling up the highway, listening to the radio, I sang along loudly to Aretha Franklin singing "Freedom"
while feeling pretty righteous about my part in saving this owl. I had nearly forgotten about the Mourning dove and my questioning of the reasonableness and sanity of these missions. It just seemed like such a great thing to be saving an owl!
Over the radio and my own voice, I started to hear the owl scratching in the box behind me. "Oh dear," I thought. "It wants to be free already." Suddenly, I realized that I had not checked to see if the box was firmly secured. What if it got loose in the car while I was driving at seventy-five miles an hour? That could be really ugly! Quickly, my imagination spun out of control. I could see myself in handcuffs splayed out across the hood of my car screaming at a cop,"Officer! I crossed the median when an owl was loose in my car! I swear!" Of course, the owl, being a wise soul, would have escaped the vehicle and left for the Great North Woods by then. "Don't crack wise with me, lady!" The gruff and burly officer would command. I pulled the car onto the break-down lane and jumped out to check. Of course, my camera was in the passenger's seat. It only took a second to grab it, just in case.
And that's when I did it, I broke my own rules violating article number six. I looked in the box just for a second. Well, maybe more than a second. Long enough to take a couple of hasty shots of its dear, little face and soulful, bottomless eyes. I felt like a bum, too. It was clear exploitation on my part. I couldn't control myself and had to see it, at its peril perhaps and I regret that.
In the end, "MoDo # 1000" and the Barred owl lived and were released. They are both out there somewhere being free, maybe even being stupid on a golf course or flying into a window, but they are alive and they are free. And, I helped. If the phone rings again with a call to carry a busted up bird to Freedom, I'll go and not question the comparative value of the life. Because, if I had done nothing, had I not moved out of my "house" or off from my position about the value of the Mourning dove, I would not have had the opportunity to experience the Barred owl. They might simply have died, each of them, without a sound.
Questionable oriole, species still in debate - Photographed in Phippsburg, Maine November 2, 2010
A reader recently sent to me an explanation for the word "Twitcher" or to "twitch" birds. I said in a previous post that I didn't know why the urge to drop everything and rush off to see a new bird was called twitching. It turns out that the term comes from the twitchy, nervous behavior of well known British birdwatcher Howard Medhurst. Mr. Medhurst is reported to have frequently traveled long distances on short notice to see rare birds. "Twitcher," is most often used in Britain and Europe, and less frequently used to describe North American birders.
Mr. Medhurst and I share numerous traits it seems; I am a nervous, twitchy kind of person given to chewing my cuticles, tapping my feet and generally not sitting still. Numerous times, I have, in fact, blown my life asunder throwing caution and duties to the wind in search of rare birds. My itchy, squirrely behavior makes me quick to pull the trigger, too. I'm not one to spend a lot of time analyzing and deliberating about things (unless they are emotionally unhealthy concerns. Then, I'll ruminate until the cows come home.). "Go with the gut," is usually my modus operandi. In birding, this isn't always a bad thing, either.
It's true that much of birding indeed involves lots of studying of the subject, looking at books and web sites and brooding over field marks. It's time consuming and well suited to an unemployed person with some Obsessive Compulsive traits as I also have. But none of that concentration on a bird will suffice or measure up to seeing it in the wild, in it's natural habitat. Study does not replace the experience of a bird's gestalt.
And what is a bird's gestalt, you ask? That quick flash of a wing, the song and call issued through the trees, a rustle in the leaves or scratch on the ground, the thing you catch from the corner of your eye. These are the flavors and nuances of a bird not quite captured in however beautifully executed a lithograph, painting or photograph. I say that as a dedicated photographer, too. It's very difficult to represent in a single image all the little details that make a bird all of what it is beyond its physical self.
With this bird, this damned oriole, I shot from the hip and killed the wrong perpetrator. I committed the Internet version of screaming "FIRE!" in a hotel lobby and exclaimed "BULLOCK'S ORIOLE!" What rushed me down the river of judgement to start with was that I saw this bird on November second. Fittingly, that was election day. Haven't you ever gone to the polls then been presented with an issue which you realized you were ignorant about? Then, you filled in the little circle with your number two lead pencil (we still do that here, no hanging chads for us) making your best guess or simply going with your party, though not really knowing what the hell you're voting for? Well I voted, and I voted for the wrong bird; I voted for Bullock's oriole and it's probably only a Baltimore Oriole. Having also voted for a losing gubernatorial candidate, I chose both of the wrong birds.
To see an oriole of any kind in November in Maine is unusual. They are primarily nectar and insect eaters, so they migrate early as the food supply begins to wizzle up with the cold. I was sure this wasn't any old oriole either. I was sure it was a Bullock's which would be stunningly rare here. Another reason that I leaped to this conclusion was that on exactly the same date last year, I saw what looked like the same bird. I had photographed it then, as well (photo below). The bird made quite a stir on the Maine birding circuit. With a pile of my photographs it was thoroughly reviewed by the Maine Birds Records Committee. "The Committee" is the body of experts that decides what a reported sighting truly is and if the sighting can be entered into official Maine birding records.
The final ruling on last year's oriole was that it was probably a hybrid of Baltimore and Bullock's orioles. So, it was not complete lunacy that I thought I saw that again. Besides, I have in fact, seen so many rare and unusual birds lately, that my identification coals were still hot. All it took to ignite them was a puff of air, a flash of orange wing and the wink of gold in the trees. Again, a stack of photographs has gone to "The Committee" for review. As if waiting for letters of acceptance to a prestigious university or in labor with child, I'm waiting on their decision. I'm thinking about taking up smoking again and drinking Scotch in the middle of the day and I've torn out patches of my own hair. I've got a whole lot of twitching going on. In my heart, I know I was wrong, though. I'm going to have runny egg on my face when the decision comes down. My bird and part of myself will be rejected. I will shout then, too. "BOLLOCKS! IT'S NOT A BULLOCK'S!"
"Bollocks," a fabulous British word meaning "testicles," is used figuratively to mean "nonsense." It's usually exclaimed after a minor incident or something unfortunate has happened. I find it a very satisfying expletive. And if "The Committee's" decision goes my way, if the bird is a Bullock's, there will be approval, admiration and respect for my birding skills, rather than the disdain I'm expecting. I can then declare "Top bollocks!" You've really got to love the British for their contributions to birding and the English language.
This delightful, and unusual bird showed up in my yard last week at my bird feeders. It is a Dickcissel, a name that unfortunately revs the purient thinking of the twelve year old boy latent in most grown men. No offense, anyone, but we did all go there, didn't we? Your answer is probably best kept between you and your god.
The Dickcissel gets its name from its flight call, described by some as like a 'raspberry,' or Bronx cheer. You know - that sound you can make by putting your mouth to the inside of your elbow, sealing your lips to your skin and blowing. I've known people in my life who could put one hand under an armpit and squeeze air out making the buzzing sound that Dickcissels make. That was long before I knew about Dickcissels, but the talent always deeply impressed me. Within the next twenty-four hours, when you are in the privacy of your own homes, I'm betting that you will try that out, too. If you choose to do it in public, I can assure you that we women will be paying more attention to you now than when you were in Junior High School. And, you may attract some birds, as well. Dickcissels do have a song, a simple, dry, "dick, dick, ciss, ciss, ciss" and a call that's a dry, single "chek."
Dickcissels are not common in Maine, though a fair number have been sighted this year, many of them along the coast. Their breeding habitat is fields in Midwestern North America. They migrate in large flocks to southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. They do occur as vagrants well outside of their normal range which is how they happen to be here. They forage on the ground mainly eating insects and seeds. Outside of the nesting season, they usually feed in flocks. They are considered a pest by farmers in some regions because flocks can consume large quantities of cultivated grains. In Venezuela where they winter, farmers poison them.
They nest near the ground in dense grasses or small shrubs, or up to 3–4 ft high in bushes and trees. The one I photographed at our house was eating on spillage from feeders and did not fly higher up than ten feet into the shrubs. Males may have up to six mates, with most attracting only one or two, and several failing to attract any mates at all. If only they had known about blowing a fart sound on the inside of their elbow, their averages might be better. If these "bachelors" survive until the following summer, they will get another try to attract females, as the partners only stay together for raising one brood. Dickcissels are thus one of the few songbirds that are truly polygamous. When they leave for the winter what little pair bond existed during the summer is broken up. In preparation for fall migration, Dickcissels begin assembling in larger and larger flocks that gradually coalesce into flocks of thousands. Winter roosts can number into the millions of birds.
Nearly all Dickcissels winter far south of their breeding range. But, individual Dickcissels frequently turn up far from the normal range, often joining in with House Sparrow flocks. This fellow in my photos was, in fact with a mixed flock of sparrows, mostly Swamp and White-throated.
I first noticed this bird, while still in bed. I can see a feeder from there and I have binoculars at my bedside. When I got up for a closer look, of course it was gone. I wasn't sure if what I had seen was the Dickcissel I surmised or not, as I had never seen one before (Though technically, I was wearing less than a bathrobe, I am still counting this as a Bathrobe Birding event). Later in the day, while working around my yard, I heard its unique farting sound. Ruling out my husband, I was able to find the bird in the shrubs. I was over the moon ecstatic!
The problem for me with seeing unusual birds or simply ones that are totally new to me is that I always want more. I can imagine what it must be like for a crack addict to be Jonesing for a fix. After seeing the Dickcissel, I kept hoping it would come back, looked for it over and over and listened to every sound in the woods and air. But it did not come back. Neuro chemically, I was awash in 'gotta-have-it" juices. Just when I thought it was over and I was calming down; I heard it: some unusual sound in the trees. I grabbed my camera and began sneaking around in the bushes, hoping against hope, my heart pounding, my hands trembling. But, alas, it was just a tricky crow mimicking something, perhaps indeed the Dickcissel. Crows can be very clever with their mimicry and more than once have sent me hunting in vane for a rarer bird than they. They have, indeed, flung me into "the crows of passion."
This is a regular old, Common loon, so you can see the difference.
Yesterday, I did something really ridiculous, but very gratifying. That combination is often the case for me. I have the most fun when whatever I'm doing involves a little risk. Out of the blue the night before, I got a phone call from a birding acquaintance. "What are you doing tomorrow?" He asked. A laundry list of boring stuff that I should do flew through my head like a flock of angry crows. But what I said was, "Evidently, I'm going to be hanging out with you!" He laughed, then invited me to go with him the next morning to see a rare bird. That always involves risk, because you never know if you'll see the bird or not. And, you could waste a lot of time and moolah on the quest.
Birders call dropping everything to go after a rare bird "twitching." I don't know why it's called that. Perhaps because when you write a check or slide your credit card across a counter to pay for the crap-shoot you're about to embark on, it makes you twitch. It made me twitch when I said yes to an ocean- going boat trip ticket to the tune of forty bucks, I can tell you that. Keep in mind that it's the very end of October in Maine and the Atlantic ocean is most inhospitable. We weren't going on a sunbathing, endless buffet cruise to Aruba. Layers and layers of clothing were required, a double dose of the anti-emetic of your choice (I like Bonine), water, gloves, a hat, lip balm and a prayer book are prudent choices. It's advisable to take something to eat too, so that when you hurl overboard you've got a donation at the ready. There's little worse than tossing your cookies without the cookie. I have experience.
The weather forecast was for a gray, cold day with sea swells around four feet. All in all, not too bad, or at least not as bad as it could be, even though 'swell' does rhyme with 'hell' for a reason. I packed a bag of general necessities and my bag of camera equipment which weighs roughly 500 pounds. Since I was going birding with a tribe of big shot birders, I had to take my binoculars, too. Normally, I just use my camera's long lens like a huge monocular when I want a close look at something. But, if I had gone on this trip without bi-noculars, I would have looked like a complete moron. So, I took them. I have powerful, but heavy binoculars which are made to sit on a table top, not hang around the neck. Real birders have shoulder harnesses for their 'binocs' which keeps them from swinging wildly, but I don't. They also have lightweight and expensive Swiss and German binoculars. When birders are together, in the down time between birds they compare equipment, "Bet you're glad you're dragging around those lead fifty-forties today, John!" Stuff like that. They also talk about rare birds they've seen and the money spent and hardships endured to see them. I have little to contribute to this, since I'm a birding hacker by comparison. I am completely out classed and out 'glassed' by them, and I know it. Additionally, between my enormous camera and lens and my clunky binoculars around my neck, I looked like a psychotic yoked oxen, so I kept out of the discussion.
The bird we were all hot to see, or more accurately, freezing our keesters to see, was a Yellow-billed Loon. It's also called the "White-billed Diver." It looks just like a Common loon, but with a pale, yellow bill; appearing comparativley white. The largest of the loons or diver birds, it's a bit bigger than the Common loon by about two inches and has a slightly longer bill. They are birds of the Arctic circle only rarely descending to the lower forty-eight. In all of bird record keeping in the State Of Maine, there has only been one ever seen here before. To see the bird this time was a really big deal bringing out all of the birding top guns in northern New England that could afford it or were just plain crazy enough (that's my category) to make the trip. Ultimately, we would ride seven miles out to sea to see what we could see in the hopes of twitching the big bird.
We left out of Portland Harbor aboard the Odyssey which is actually a whale watching tour service. The boat captain droned away on a scratchy P.A. system about various landmarks as we left the harbor. We did see a porpoise or two and tuna, but no whales. None of us cared about that, either as the "tuna" we were after, our "catch of the day," would be the bird. We did pass enormous flotillas of Common loons, more than I had ever heard of at one time, never mind to have seen. I counted well over two hundred, numerous of them in rafts of 30-40 birds at a time. A group of loons is called an "asylum." I don't think there is a term for a group of birders, but there should be.
As we rolled further and further out to sea across lead colored water, even the birds got fewer and fewer. Thin jokes were handed around the group about all of us getting dipped. That's what birders say when you set out to twitch but turn up a loser. A few times, someone would yell, "Look! Look! Over there! Two o'clock off the bow!" and a wave of arms with binoculars would swing up like the legs of synchronized swimmers. But, nothing. I added up the costs of this birdless, cold, dismal trip: Ticket - $40, gas - $10, parking - $10, lunch - $5. Total: $65. I was beginning to mull over my sandwich. I was thinking how happy I was to have brought one because soon, I could boredom eat.
Then, suddenly the captain backed off the boat throttle idling down the engine. "There! There it is, ladies and gentlemen, what you've all come to see! We're coming up on the Yellow-billed off the bow!" His excitement radiated through the lousy sound system. The mob of birders scrambled en masse to one side of the boat like roaches when the light goes on. Abundant oohing, ahhhing and pointing created a haze of happiness above the crowd; everybody was delighted. Even the other passengers - the non-birders were caught up in the glee fest. I forgot about my sandwich and started taking pictures, what I had come for even more than the bird.
In the end, sharing a rare bird or any other once-in-a-lifetime experience is the greatest equalizer. If the bird had not been twitched, but missed, we would all have spent the same long, gray and expensive day, a day lost from work, a day not taking care of business at home. To have the supreme pleasure of something so rare, regardless of experience, wealth or even interest, is a glory shared with another nonetheless. There is nothing finer. After the fact, it was a million dollar bird.
To see additional photographs of the Yellow-billed loon and other birds and Maine scenic landscapes from the same trip, click HERE. Thanks for looking.
Mark you calendars, ladies and gentlemen! Be at The Gulf Of Maine bookstore on Maine Street in Brunswick on Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 4PM. Phippsburg artist, Jo Miles Schuman will speak about her new book, "A Spicing Of Birds." Co-edited by Jo with Joanna Bailey Hodgman, the lovely book is a collection of poems by Emily Dickinson, illustrated with classical works of avian art. The carefully selected watercolors, engravings, lithographs and early bird photographs correspond pleasingly with thirty-seven of Dickinson's works. Published by Wesleyan University Press, A Spicing Of Birds is a sensuous tribute to Dickinson's love of birds. Though birds were referenced hundreds of times in her works, Dickinson's deep love of birds has barely been mentioned in previous anthologies. The editors have here explored the deep relationship of the poet to birds within the pages of this divine, little book. It's a book which feels good in the hand and in the heart. It will appeal to the birding soul in everyone.
Recently, I spent three consecutive days on Hermit Island from six forty-five to ten AM. Hermit Island is on the end of the Phippsburg peninsula. Because it juts far out into the Atlantic ocean, it is a haven for migrating birds. They don't like crossing expanses of water any more than I like getting up early. So, they congregate building their numbers for the inevitable crossing. To catch the birds as they began to move with the rising sun's heat, I had to rise at 6, which makes me absolutely nauseous. I'm not crabby when I get up, but I am logy and have to fight back the spins. This is just how it is for me; I'm accustomed to plowing my way toward wakefulness. As soon as I start moving, I'm okay and I really do love the light in the morning and the soft silence.
Hermit Island is privately owned. It's an undeveloped campground with 275 sites. Columbus Day weekend was the last hurrah. There were many die hard campers, none of whom were awake when I arrived. As I walked the two miles of dirt road to the end of the island, I could hear breathing and snoring from the tents. Picnic tables were littered with beer bottles and cans, debris from partying. A Red squirrel toppled a few to the ground, scaring itself, then scampering away. The only other sounds were rustling leaves, and the birds, thousands of them. Chirring, chipping and whirring mingled with the scratching sounds of tiny claws on bark. As I walked, no matter how carefully I placed each step, rocks skidded and gravel crunched. By comparison, my own foot steps were clunky, until I heard the Pileated woodpeckers.
Pileateds are noisy. They bash, hammer and tear at trees and their call rips the air. I saw five in one day, four of them near one another. I'm sure they were the Pileated family group I had written about this past spring. It was a thrill to see them all grown up and out tearing up the forest. Their raucous screeching and drumming must have been a delight for hung-over campers' headaches. When I was a child, my father was often hung over. To roust him out and torment him, my mother would bang together pots and pans and tell him she was serving him a glass full of cold pork gravey. This formula usually worked, too. He would probably have preferred a Pileated cure.