Thursday, May 31, 2012

Silence Of The Woods - Royal Ferns

A colony of
Royal ferns, Osmunda regalis on a streamside in the woods, Phippsburg, Maine

The Still Cover

I'm deep in green
where the blue newts move
between wet leaves,
smooth, so cool.
Only sounds of dripping,
circles form on dark pools,
fronds, ferns unfurling, 
moss absorbing,
then the waterthrush's
fluted chortling
amidst the trees
leaves me settled serene
and deep,
deep within the green,
still cover.


    Since I was a little kid, I've loved these wet, secret places in the woods. Some people would find the enveloping stillness unnerving, but I have always been drawn by it. The quiet stirs a notion of promise and magic. When I breathe in the rich, pungent smell of decaying wood, I can conjure a fairy's life. The near absence of sound makes me listen harder for what might be there, rustling under the leaves, moving along the banks of the stream, or tip toeing through the mud. Did I see a deer pause, ears twitching through the leaves, then gone in a flash? Is there a giant, Spotted salamander snorkeling in the gloame? I could wish a golem in the gloom. The quiet seems filled with possibilities.
    My sister and I got lost in such a place when we were young. We followed a path, or so it seemed, until suddenly, there wasn't a path anymore. We looked around us and didn't know where to go. Everything looked the same: trees, bottomless pools of black water, mushrooms and tall ferns. Barely any light filtered through the trees. Looking upward, there were only cracks of sky. And it was silent.
     The greenery seemed to suck up all sound. We listened hoping to hear familiar, distant sounds - our dog barking, a lawnmower, a truck on a road, anything. But there was nothing. Even the sound of our own panicky breathing died around us.
     My father used to tell us that moss grew on the north sides of trees. If you looked for the moss, you’d know which way to go. North? What did north mean to an eight year old? There was moss on the trees; there was moss everywhere, matting every rock and fallen log in velvet green. No moss was going to tell us where to go. The moss did not speak. I thought about my plastic, Cracker Jack compass at home.
     Once, from a place like that, I captured a dozen Red-spotted newts. I put them in an aquarium with pads of moss I had peeled from rocks. I put in some stones and made a little pool in a bottle cap. I put in some tiny, emerald colored ferns and rotted sticks. I put in a Shelf mushroom making an ample roof, a sort of salamander pavilion. It seemed like a perfect home for the newts. I imagined a whole life for them in their microhabitat, or glass prison. It was a veritable village of newts, which I called salamanders.
     Newts and salamanders are basically the same thing. What they each came to be called has more to do with history and language than science. Newts are a subgroup of salamanders. All newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts. A salamander is called a “newt” if it belongs to specific genera (I won’t bore you with the list). Generally, newts spend more of their lives in the water than salamanders; they have more distinctive differences between genders, and they have more complicated aquatic courtships. Now, wasn’t that a visual!
    There are 550 species of salamander in the world. The North American continent has more species of salamanders, including newts, than any other continent on earth. Maine has eight species. For those of you who say “I don’t like lizards,” salamanders are not lizards. On their front feet, they only have four toes; lizards have five.  Though there are no “blue newts” as in my poem, there is a Blue-spotted salamander in Maine. Most salamanders are lungless. They breathe through their skin which requires that their skin stay moist. For this reason, they are usually nocturnal and live under leaves and places where it’s damp. Many of them are vernal pool and wetland dwellers, places such as the photos above.
     After a while, I forgot about my salamanders. My father found my aquarium prison dried up and abandoned, for which he beat the shit out of me. That was fifty years ago and I still carry the guilt. The bulging eyes, tender toes and wide smiles of a newt give me pangs of pain. But, that dark little episode of my history is part of what lead me to become an amateur naturalist and nature photographer. The dark, damp places in the woods always makes me think of the brilliant, orange salamanders I tortured. I have a lot to make up for. Maybe they are what I listen for in the penetrating silence - signs of life.
     When my sister and I couldn’t find our way out of the woods, she started to cry. I was scared. I didn’t want her to know how scared I was too, terrified, in fact. So, I told her to shut up and quit crying. I knew that we had to figure it out on our own, that no one was going to help us. I knew that I had to figure it out, because I was the oldest. I listened hard for some sign, some sound that would guide us, but there was nothing. I smelled the air. Nothing.
    My sister was sitting on a pad of moss, sniffling. She had a trickle of blood oozing from a knee where she had fallen. A Blackfly had left a rude, purple welt in the corner of her eye and more were gathering. “Come on. Get up and get walking,” I ordered. It probably wasn’t long, though it seemed like eternity, when one of our family dogs showed up. Though we felt far, far away, we probably weren’t very far from home. It took some scrambling to keep up, but we followed the dog home.
     Decades later, I would hear on the news that a four year old boy was lost in the Maine woods to the north (August, 1975, Kurt Newton, Coburn Gorge, Maine). The biggest manhunt in the history of the State ensued to search for him. I was one of the searchers. I had to go. I couldn’t get my sister out of my head, her bloody knee, her bug bites, her futile crying. It was brutal, hot, hard hunting. Hundreds of searchers were all fly-bitten and bramble scratched. In the dense, damp woods searchers found bottle caps, cigarette butts and a wallet, all dropped by searchers who had gone before. And I saw a few salamanders, significant to only me. But, no little boy, and to this day, his disappearance has remained a mystery. I think every one of us wanted to be the one to find him and believed he would be found.
     I will remain forever haunted by that search, by the not finding. I’ve since had children of my own, whom I’ve raised safely to adulthood. I know that if I was that little boy’s mother, for the rest of my life, I would listen very closely when in the silent woods. 

Red-striped salamander, Phippsburg, Maine

Spotted Red newt

For more information on salamanders and newts, visit these sites.
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OPEN SALON READER'S PICK AWARD ! For more, click on that link or the one below.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Heady Day In Heaven - 777 Photos

Lady's Slipper orchids, the largest colony I have ever seen. May, coastal Maine 2012
This is an iris without a name, but none the less for glory, in my coastal Maine garden. Years ago, I received it as a cull from a customer's garden. The name had long been lost to her, and has remained so for me. If any of you know what kind it is, would you please let me know?
 A Flower Crab spider waits on a Tree peony petal to ambush its prey. These spiders are smaller than my tiniest fingernail. I took this with a 60mm macro lens.

This is a male Bobolink in flight. It's the first one I've ever photographed, though I've seen them before. I stood for over an hour in an open field to get this shot. I wasn't wearing a hat and it was HOT out there!

This vintage Chevy with boys in ball caps went by on the country lane where I was standing in the field photographing birds.

There were several pairs of Eastern Bluebirds cruising the field for insects. A farm nearby had Bluebird houses on posts which were all occupied by these fabulous birds.

     On Memorial Day, I went for a ride to see Lady's Slipper orchids in what had been reported to me to be a huge colony. I didn't have to go far from home, only twenty or so miles. They werent' kidding about the enormity of the colony, either. The elderly couple who owned the land said that they had counted 346 blossoms on their single acre.
     I drove through numerous meadows, what we in Maine call "hay fields." Twice a summer, they will be mowed for hay. Before they are mowed the first time, Bobolinks make their nests there. Lots of other birds cruise the fields for food, too. I saw Savannah sparrows, Meadowlarks, Tree swallows, Barn swallows, Brown Headed cowbirds, Red-winged blackbirds, Mourning doves, Blue jays, Eastern Bluebirds, Starlings, Crows, and a Broad-winged hawk, all in one field. They zoomed and zipped from grass tops to utility lines, snatching bugs and seeds and arguing with each other. Shimmering, hot air rose from the grass and buttercups. I stood in the field in the blazing sun for about an hour, long enough that the birds forgot that I was there.
     A dog was let out from a nearby farm. In typical farm dog fashion, it barked incessantly while trotting along the farm's fence line. The chortling and cheeping of birds nearly drowned it out. A vintage, orange Chevy pick up went by, the cab crowded with ball cap stereotyped farm boys. On the breeze the aroma of manure was carried from a barn. I got one good, solid whiff of hot dogs on a grill somewhere. Mixed with the bird songs, girls laughed in the distance.
     Up the road from where I stood is a put in for small boats. When I drove by, headed home, people were putting canoes and kayaks in the water. A woman in cut off shorts, her recently exposed to daylight thighs already sun burned, craned her neck to kiss a man in Teva sandals. Two kids struggled a red canoe from a car roof while swallows swooped across the stream surface.
     At the end of the day, I had taken 777 photographs. I had started in my garden amongst the flowers, up close looking for insects, travelled through woods, fields and streams for more flowers and birds. I was richly rewarded. I saw birds I've not had the pleasure to photograph before and flowers familiar to me but more numerous than I'd ever imagined possible. It was a heady day in heaven.

Friday, May 25, 2012

FLYDAY - Bald eagle, Osprey, Herring gulls, Double-crested Cormorants- Fishing & Fighting

Osprey, also known as a Fish Hawk with a freshly caught Alewife, which is a type of herring. Phippsburg Maine.
 These photos were all taken within five minutes of one another. I was sitting at the mouth of the Kennebec River where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Popham Beach.

Bald eagle, adult chasing an Osprey with a fish, off from Popham Beach, Phippsburg Maine

I felt sorry for the poor fish. That's a long way to fall!

A Double-crested cormorant was flying by. They were also there to catch fish, but they don't steal from others for their dinner.

Herring gulls and Harbor seals, Phippsburg Maine. The gulls had chased an Osprey with a herring, also known as Alewife, until the beleaguered raptor dropped the fish. Then, the gulls fought each other for the purloined catch. One of them was able, miraculously, to snatch it from the drink and take off with it. The Harbor seals watched. They were busy catching their own fish and wondering if someone might drop some fries into the water to go with it. No Grey Poupon served here, only tartar sauce!

FLYday is an homage to what our feathered friends do best, fly.
(It seems fighting, feeding and filching are high on their lists, too!)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Do The Funky Cowbird! "I Got Soul, And I'm Super Bad!"

     I am reposting this because the Dancing Cowbird showed up yesterday for the first time since I originally posted about them in 2010. I'm reposting to honor his dance and his shrill call. His girlfriend is here, too. The Cowbird's impressive display is well worth the re-read and view of these pictures.
     Yesterday was an important day for us for a different reason, too: It was the twelve anniversary of the day my husband and I met. Yes, we recognize that occassion, like high school kids that count the days in their relationships. "Davie and I have been going steady for four thousand three hundred and eighty days!" David gave to me a stunning, silver necklace. It's huge and gaudy and wonderful. Dancing and singing, he presented it to me like a hopped up Cowbird trying to impress his mate. I was Weeding For Dollars and quite filthy looking not unlike the humble female Cowbird. However, I donned the bodacious bobble immediately. I told him,
"You are the stars in my sky,
You are my ultimate high,
In your smiling face so sweet,
You are my life complete"

A new resident at our house this year has been a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds. We've never had them before this year. This male perches on the backs of our patio chairs and does an elaborate dance to his own reflection in the windows. He looks like he's groovin' the the 80's disco tunes of James Brown - "I've got soul and I'm super bad!!!!" But, it's just classic Cowbird courtship behavior.
    Cowbirds are kleptoparasites. That is, they steal from other birds for their own gain. Eagles are kleptoparasites, too. They steal food, such as fish, from other birds. Cowbirds steal nests.     
     In fact, they don't even make nests of their own at all! They lay eggs in the nests of other birds. Then, the host bird raises the Cowbird chicks after they hatch, often at their own loss. Cowbird chicks are often bigger than the host bird's own chicks and shove them out of the nest or simply demand more food than the host bird chicks, which starve.
     Because Cowbirds don't have to take care of their young, they lay a lot of eggs in a season, sometimes as many as thirty. That requires a lot of mating, thus the action on our patio chairs. This guy is also noisy about it. I always know where he is in the yard because of his high pitched, nearly electronic sounding call. Cowbirds are north American natives hailing from the grasslands. However, their numbers have increased dramatically as we've cut down trees and made more open land. They like feeding on the ground, so if you have spilled seed or livestock, you're likely to have Cowbirds. I have neither, so I'm not sure why we've got them now. Because they have threatened some endangered species of birds with their nest hogging, some regard them as nuisance birds. I can't help but admire this guy's antics and wonderful iridescent feathers, even if I know better. Give me a muscled guy on a mechanical bull ride in a bar and I'm a goner.

These patio chairs have seen more action than a hotel mattress.

For more info on Cowbirds and to hear their calls and songs, click on these links:
Brown Headed Cowbird

Thanks to Wikipedia for some of the information, as well.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Friday, May 11, 2012

FLYday - Magnolia Warbler, Phippsburg, Maine

Magnolia Warbler in flight, Phippsburg, Maine May 2012

FLYday is an homage to what our feathered friends do best, fly! 

To see more of my photographs of birds in flight, click on this link:

Saturday, May 5, 2012

FLYday - Bald Eagle and Herring Gull Fight

Adult Bald eagle being harassed by Herring Gull, Phippsburg, Maine, May 2012

FLYday is an homage to what our feathered friends do best, fly. 

I took this shot on the end of our pier, 120 feet out into the ocean. I was wearing my bathrobe. 
On my photography web site, you will find almost 8,000 images of Maine taken by me.