Sunday, May 27, 2007

From an Undisclosed Location

"Late in the night I woke up, just in time to hear a golden- crowned thrush sing in a tree nearby. It sang as loud and cheerily as at midday, and I thought myself, after all, quite in luck."

John Burroughs, from Wake-Robin, 1871

I wanted to get off the road quickly and duck into the woods before any cars came by. As soon as I faded into the woods, leaving the road behind, I began to relax. The quarter-moon in the clear sky shed just enough light through the trees that I could see the trail, if not every root and rock. I slowed down and walked deliberately and quietly, almost as if I were in a grand cathedral at night.

In about a quarter-hour, I arrived at my destination. As soon as I saw this spot a few weeks before, I knew it would be a good place to sleep in the woods. It was off the beaten path and afforded the protection of a large boulder to sleep against. The forest floor was soft, even if there’s always one rock that can’t be moved. A small pine by my head defined the limits of my bedroom.

Just as I was preparing my bed I heard the sound of a strange animal. The closest familiar sound I can compare it to is the sound of mating cats. Actually, it sounded more like a combination of cats mating and purring. I visualized someone turning a hand crank attached through a gear box to a thin-bladed cheap tin fan to make a high-pitched whirring sound. The animal seemed to be moving around in the dark woods, almost circling me. It was a little spooky, particularly since I had no idea what it was. My best guess is a mink or fisher, but I really don’t know. (I’d appreciate opinions!) I was more annoyed than afraid, however, because I was tired and wanted to sleep. I moved my pack and shoes up by my head to increase the sense of shelter and protection. I heard the first mosquitoes of the year buzzing around my head, but was confident dropping temperatures would keep them from becoming a real problem. Little did I know my real attackers would be unheard and unseen.

Even though the sky was clear and the air was warm, I found the limited shelter of the rock comforting. There was no wind, but in my nest I could feel the subtle movement of air currents as if cooler air from the North was flowing over the boulder and down on me. I put on a fleece hat, put on a jacket and pulled my light sleeping bag up around my shoulders. A few stars were visible twinkling through the leaves along with the lights of jets on their final approach into Logan.

I was probably asleep before 10 pm only to be awakened around half past midnight by a bird. In my half-conscious state, I heard the loud teacher-teacher-teacher call of an ovenbird with an unusual warbled ending. I could have been dreaming the last part because I’ve never heard an ovenbird sing like that, but it seemed real at the time. I could have been irritated by the rude awakening, but instead, I was thrilled to hear the night song of one of my favorite birds.

I quickly fell back to sleep, only to have the ovenbird wake me again in an hour. I was less enthusiastic this time because I had some trouble getting back to sleep. As I planned this little adventure, I imagined myself getting lost in deep thoughts while alone in the woods at night. Instead, I was having fantasies about sending terminators from the future back to the past to eliminate the mother of the guy who invented the back-up beeper for dump trucks. Apparently there was night-time construction out on the Interstate and the sound carries for miles.

After falling asleep yet again, I had a series of dreams – nightmares, really - all about destruction of - and encroachment on - the woods around me. Solitude was impossible to find. There were logging machines, roads and house construction all around.

The dawn chorus of birds woke me at 4:50, before the actual sunrise at 5:17. It was a small glee club, however, with a noisy titmouse, a chickadee, the ovenbird and a tapping woodpecker. I wondered if the spring migration was just about over. I was happy to see that my nightmares were only dreams and the woods were still standing. I gave serious thought to getting up and looking for birds, but fell back to sleep and more weird dreams before getting up for good around my usual time of 6:30.

The old bones were stiff after a cool night on the ground, but the coffee in my Thermos was still warm and the bagel energy bars tasted good as I sat on a rock. There was a nuthatch, a clucking chipmunk and two or three competing ovenbirds politely taking turns singing. Otherwise the woods were pretty quiet. A few dogwoods were in bloom, providing white floral accents among the new bright green leaves of the forest. As the sun warmed the air, mosquitoes were coming out in good numbers and I knew I’d have to plan for them for the rest of the summer. In April and early May, it’s easy to forget how annoying they can be.

After breakfast I headed home. I missed the morning rush, so few people noticed the scruffy character with a backpack walking through town. As I showered, I discovered over a dozen tiny ticks on my body. They must have been attacking as I slept. There is no hunting in our town and few predators. Our unnaturally high deer population seems to create an unnaturally high population of deer ticks. A lingering concern about Lyme disease is the price I pay for my night of solitude.

There are those who might question the judgment of a grown man who wants to sleep in the woods when he has a perfectly good bed at home. There are those who would even forbid such activity. One of the books in my to-read pile is The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. While what we have done to keep our clean, weak, over-protected kids isolated from the natural world is tragic, I also worry about the adults. In my youth, I took many long solo hikes in the woods, often sleeping alone. It helped make me who I am. It created a part of my character. I like to think those early experiences are still with me, but one wonders. Modern conveniences, hectic schedules, changing tastes and social pressures make outdoor pursuits inconvenient, if not down-right odd.

The desire to spend this night in the woods began to take on more importance to me than one might expect of a single night’s sleep. It was to be a way to reconnect with the simple pleasures and enthusiastic adventurousness of my youth. It would be a way to more fully experience the outside world around me; to be more intimate with the woods that give so much. When my ovenbird woke me in the darkness, I thought of John Burroughs and his golden-crowned thrush. We have changed the name, but the bird and the song are the same. I was thrilled that a little bird could give me a connection to one of the great American naturalists, and a connection to the person I used to be.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

The Tree of Life

The trees of Moose Hill have so much to offer. They provide food and shelter for the creatures that live there and for those who pass through. They can also protect a wandering spirit and sometimes even share a story.

On several of my visits over the past year I’ve found myself focusing on a single tree, such as the black gum that offered its ripe October fruits to robins or the broken ash tree that reminded me of a damaged soul. There was that little pine that sat patiently in the shade of its elders, waiting for its chance that may never come. The cucumber tree that reminded me of my first dendrology class transported me to idealistic and optimistic times. I found another special tree that is appreciated by many – people and birds alike.

Weather permitting, I’ve been taking my breakfast on Moose Hill before work a couple of times a week lately, trying to let the spring bird migration wash over me. One of my favorite spots to sit is a nice, flat-topped rock right near the old Billings barn. I like this spot for so many reasons: It is close to the sanctuary parking lot and I can be there in five minutes. I like to sit there and imagine life on the farm in simpler times. The old barn, the new but rustic tractor shed, the stone walls, the big old maple trees, the surrounding fields all combine to create a picturesque rural scene that makes me wish I could paint or draw.

This area also has a wide variety of habitats that all come together near the barn. The barn itself offers old rafters for the phoebe that can always be seen there. Birds of the deep woods can be heard singing in the forest behind the barn. There are all kinds of brushy edges and tangles that attract towhees and catbirds. The old field across the road has nesting boxes for bluebirds and tree swallows and provides a stage for dancing woodcock. Below the field is a maple swamp that must harbor unique birds along with the frogs and peepers that call from there. I can usually count on seeing chipping sparrows in the old gravel road and orioles in the maples that border it. In an overgrown field behind the barn, last week I saw my first indigo bunting in a very long time.

Just across the drive from the barn door is a big old apple tree. I’ve noticed and admired this tree several times before, but after a birder I met a couple of weeks ago told me it is a well-know bird magnet, I started paying more attention. There are two apples, really, a large old tree and a smaller one right in front of it. The big old apple is about 40 feet tall and that much around. I went there last Tuesday morning specifically to sit by the apple trees and watch the action. The foliage was dense, but on closer inspection, the leaves were peppered with holes from the caterpillars that draw the birds.

I sat down on my rack and settled in for breakfast and entertainment Moose Hill style. A red-eyed vireo, recently arrived, was singing from the top of a near-by maple. High up. Way up. Tree top. This bird is often heard, but less frequently seen hidden in the dense foliage high in hardwood trees. At first, it was good to hear his arboreal serenade, but these cheery busybodies never seem to shut up, and soon enough I was wishing he would be quiet so could hear something else. A movement under the big apple caught my eye and I got up to see what it was. The ground under the tree is quite open and I watched as a wood thrush – my first of the year – hopped around robin-like. After a while, he retired to the forest to play his lovely flute.

During my short stay, many birds visited the old apple. Many of them were regulars such as the phoebe, catbirds, chipping sparrows and chickadees. The only warbler I could identify on this day was the black-throated green thanks to a quick glimpse of his distinctive facial features and his zee zee zee zoo zee song. A few other small birds were there, but I couldn’t get a clear view as they moved steadily through the thick leaves.

My breakfast was finished, a few raindrops began to fall, and even I needed to get some work done. I took a last look at the old apple as a few of the blossom petals drifted to the ground like fat snowflakes. I wondered if this tree or its predecessors nourished the farmer that once worked this land. Perhaps it was planted by a Johnny Appleseed-like character intending to provide fruit for cider. Little did he know he would be supplying a very different sort of intoxication, but one no less valued, for those who came here from a time and place very far away.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

May on the Deck

chimney swift catbird

sky above forsythia

good to have them home

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Clean Light

I listened to the bird calls as I sleepily pedaled the bike up Moose Hill on Saturday morning. I heard the usual characters – cardinal, chipping sparrow, titmouse, chickadee – but I was opening my ears for new sounds from the woods. I heard a towhee; I knew they were back. But wait, was that an oriole? Was that a catbird? I was hopeful that I would see several recent arrivals from mysterious journeys.

I had a time limit, so I tried to get out of the house early and stay close to home. That usually means Hobbs Hill. I like this spot because it’s only half way up the hill and I can get there quickly. Because it’s removed from the sanctuary parking lot by a half mile or so, I’m less likely to see other people there. I find the hill itself comfortable in an innate sort of way. Its flat top with short ash and hickory trees and open understory (Thanks in large part to hungry deer.) feels a bit like an island in a sea of trees. The steep sides offer great places to sit and look down on the forest below.

As soon as I arrived at the top of the hill I caught a brief look at a thrush that reminded me of one I’d watched there last year. I hadn’t heard any wood thrush yet, so I thought this might be a hermit thrush. Another movement caught my eye, and I was treated to the sight of a pair of chickadees working to hollow out a cavity in a small ash stump. The entrance was only about three feet off the ground and the birds took turns flying into their new home and picking punky wood from the bottom of the cavity. There seemed to be a delicate balance between a tree that is rotten enough for these tiny birds to excavate and one that is strong enough to remain upright until the babies fledge.

I went to my usual rock, but the rising sun was in my face making it difficult to see small birds in tall trees, so I looked for a new spot. This was alternative rock in the Moose Hill sense, I guess, and it turned out to be a good choice. I felt like a raptor, perched on my rock and, between sips of coffee, scanning the forest below for any movement. Lifting my binoculars so my vision would be more like a hawk and less like an ageing human, I watched as a chipmunk emerged from under an old stump to shuffle the dry oak leaves.

Maybe I missed the dawn chorus, perhaps my timing was off by a few days, or maybe there are simply fewer birds around, but the woods seemed quiet. A few birds were going quietly about their business, such as the downy woodpecker and myrtle warbler that came by, but they seemed quiet and subdued; their calls more like whispers than the exuberant springtime singing I was hoping for.

It was another cool, calm, clear morning, so visibility was excellent. That made it all the more maddening to hear a few forgotten or unfamiliar bird songs but only catch fleeting glimpses as the birds move about. I’m not very good a craning my neck to study the undersides of tiny, hyperactive creatures.

With my sandwich gone and coffee intake sufficient, I decided to head back to the bike while taking time to identify just one or two interesting birds. I knew I didn’t have the time to chase after every tweet and twitter I heard, so I would try to focus on just a few. Just as I made that decision I was hearing a repetitive song, almost but not quite like the caroling of a robin. Just above where the chickadees were busy laboring, I saw a flash of brilliant red. A scarlet tanager!

With his scarlet body and starkly contrasting black wings, I can’t imagine a more exotic-looking bird in these woods. Because I was on the hill and the trees he was working in were rooted down below, he was just over my head. This was no fleeting glimpse. He sat, moved about examining tree buds and sang, offering one perfect view after the other. I worried about the challenges he and his kind faced as they migrated and wintered in the tropics.

Just then, a few yards below my feet working among the rocks of the craggy hillside I spotted one – and then another- hermit thrush. One was carrying a short, thin twig! I guess I wasn’t imagining the thrush I saw just as I arrived. This pair also offered wonderful views as they pumped their reddish tails and walked and hopped from twig to rock as if house-hunting. This spot struck me as perfect for a hermit. I imagined a cozy nest in a crack or crevice with a sheltering fern frond overhead. These two seemed united in their task and it seemed that even a hermit likes a little company once in a while.

Yet again, I was moved by the magic of Moose Hill. All I had to do was think about finding two good birds before heading for home, and I didn’t even have to leave my seat. Maybe it was the birds, maybe it was the caffeine, but as walked slowly along the trail through the sweet, fresh air back to my bike I was on a high. The sunlight filtering through the trees to illuminate the forest floor was so pure and clear that the eyes tricked the mind into thinking the thoughts were clear as well.

The flute-like song of a thrush lured me off the trail. At first I thought I was hearing my first wood thrush of the year, but the song was not quite right. I moved toward the bird and he moved toward me. I thought I saw the tail-pumping of another hermit thrush before he flew off. I knew the pleasant task of learning more about the thrushes of Moose Hill lay ahead of me.

As I arrived at my bike and prepared to head home, I wondered what it was about this place that so often makes my mind and senses feel so relaxed and alert at the same time. Part of the comfort I find in these woods comes from familiarity. By visiting many of the same places repeatedly over the past year, I find that each spot offers a history that links one visit to the next. Individual trees, rocks and even birds have stories to tell if I visit them often enough. At least, I think I hear this land telling tales. My hope is that the clear light will allow my mind to eventually understand the mysteries Moose Hill has to share.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Siren Song

May 1st has long been one of my favorite days of the year. Spring is blooming in all its richness and bird migration is starting to peak. I observed the arrival of this special month by playing hooky again for an hour of breakfast and coffee on Moose Hill on Tuesday and Friday mornings this week. By leaving home a little early and spending the time I would otherwise use reading the paper or generally procrastinating, I can get an hour in the woods and still get my work done.

I drove down the hill from the town center and passed the train depot. I saw the suits rushing to the station, heading to work in Boston. There are days I wish I could do that, but these days were not among them. The sky was clear and a bright sun was warming the cool air. I knew the woods held birds I had not seen in months and I wanted to be there to great them. I was glad that the demands of clocks and offices were largely irrelevant to me.

I parked in the sanctuary lot and started walking toward Moose Hill. I was welcomed by the chipping sparrows that are always trilling along the street and the red bellied woodpecker that seems to have a territory right near the beginning of the Summit Trail. Following my usual modus operandi, I hiked to one of the trails around the base of Moose Hill and walked until I spotted some inviting, sun-warmed rocks up the hill. I then climbed up, found a comfortable spot with a view and sat down to survey the surroundings.

I didn’t see many birds as I moved along the trail. The tree buds were just opening, so visibility to the treetops was excellent. Although the sky was clear, I thought perhaps strong breezes were keeping the birds down. On Tuesday, as if to confirm my hypothesis, I saw birds moving low in the forest just as I sat down in my selected spot. The first was a bright yellow warbler with brown streaks on its sides, a neat chestnut cap and a funny habit of pumping its tail rather like a hermit thrush. I carry my old Peterson guide on days like this when I know I will likely see birds I don’t know well. The guide told me this was a palm warbler and they are known for staying near the ground, so this fellow wasn’t doing anything unusual to support my theory about the wind keeping small birds out of the treetops. I looked at the checklist in the front of the book and saw that I had marked this bird off as seen, but that may have been 30 years ago, so this was almost as good as a life bird to me.

Within minutes, a black and white warbler came by. I didn’t need a book to ID this little guy who carries his name in his colors. Other than the usual chickadees, titmice and chipmunks, I didn’t see much else on Tuesday. The steady rush of the wind in the tree branches made it difficult to hear the subtle bird calls and songs, but I was content to be alone and watch how the bright sun dappled the forest floor with clear light.

Friday was much like Tuesday. The woods were quieter than I might have expected on a clear day in early May. I reflected on the wonderful, if troubling, NPR radio program on Tom Ashbrook’s Onpoint Radio. (See sidebar.) They discussed the myriad threats facing migrating birds these days from the destruction of tropical rain forests, to development on the Gulf Coast, to communications towers, to pesticides. Perhaps it was this in this momentary low mood that I reminded myself that May 4th was the day that America killed some of it own.

It would be very unlike Moose Hill to fail to offer up some treat for the senses and, in time, as I sat quietly I began to hear subtle sounds. I heard, and then saw, first a small group of myrtle warblers with their funny habit of dropping from on tree branch to the other. I saw another palm warbler and it was good to see this bird two visits in a row to reinforce my familiarity with it.

As I listened for new birds, I heard a new call just up the hill. It was a “teach-teach-teach” much like and ovenbird, but not quite. It was coming from behind some pines just over a ridge. I walk that way, pausing to listen. I heard the call again, this time just a little further up the hill, still beyond sight. This went on for a while longer with the bird calling but seemingly moving away just as I approached.

I began to imagine myself following this tempting spirit deeper and deeper into the wild until I was lost. I fantasized about discovering beautiful stands of virgin forest with sun-lit mossy openings where colorful birds warbled gentle songs. Realizing I could never find a better place to rest, I set down my pack, wrote a final page in my journal and dozed off into eternal sleep.

Somewhere about that time, my cell phone went off. As with the mylar balloons I picked up from the forest floor, even here the outside world finds a way to intrude. Even though I have no boss and no office to go to, I have responsibilities and work to do, but I am not afraid to set them aside for a few minutes of peace and quiet. There are those who would call me lazy. I prefer to think of myself as tremendously ambitions in my quest for balance.

I recently talked to a young man who is astonishingly successful in the world of money. His family is falling apart. When I suggested that with all the money he had, surely he could spend more time at home. He said he needed to stay productive. Perhaps the balance sheets he reads so well lack some important data altogether. I spoke with another man who commutes in a car for up to two hours each way to sit in an office and profit from those losing everything in the mortgage crisis. In both our natural world and our own lives, all too often we ignore the true cost of things. How much is a happy wife worth? What price tag goes on a warbler’s song? As Ansel Adams said, some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Some people are driven to succeed. Some march to a different drummer. Others hear a siren song. Some are called to the world of clocks, money, productivity and things. Others hear a different tune and are called to walk in the woods on a beautiful spring morning. We live in a world of opportunity, freedom and choices. I choose to spend an hour sitting quietly in the forest thinking about the value of the quest for serenity.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Why the Dove Mourns

I never paid much attention to mourning doves. They’re pretty birds and their gentle cooing is soothing. They go quietly about their business and don’t bother anybody – not even insects, it seems – as they search for seeds. Down South, these swift fliers are favorite targets of shotgunners. Around here, they are protected songbirds. They’re common birds without being over-abundant. Like other birds I see every day, I tend not to pay enough attention.

All this changed a bit week before last when my wife pointed out a dove nesting in the end of a rain gutter on our house. I was working in our driveway, installing some windows for our next-door neighbor and the nest was no more than ten feet above my head. The mother (I presume) sat stoically on the nest, sometimes with her tail sticking out, other times with her head peeking over the edge of the aluminum gutter. Unlike the robins nesting on our garage floodlight last year, she never flushed as I moved about and showed little concern about my presence.
I got my extension ladder to go up and take a peek. Expecting eggs, I was surprised to see two nestlings. When I first saw the babies about a week and a half ago, they looked like two squat, black toads with a heavy stubble.
Saturday morning, I was sitting on the deck, enjoying the on-rush of Spring and seeing how many bird species I could count from my lounge chair (20). When I went to check on the nestlings, they looked like little adult doves – nearly the size of ground doves I’ve seen out West - with bright black eyes. At feeding time, the mother would open her mouth and the babies would reach in for what I imagined was a regurgitated meal of seeds. The parents were spending less time on the nest and the babies were moving about, stretching their wings and looking like they’d tumble out of the gutter at any moment. Both parent sat on the peak of the roof next door, looking down at the nest as if urging their youngsters to fly.
Early Sunday morning, as I went out to the shed to get my bike for my Sunday morning ride, a cat was crouched on the lawn, tail swishing, looking ready to pounce on a male cardinal collecting sunflower seeds under the feeder. I chased the cat (and wondered if that was reason enough to get a Boston terrier). I forgot to check the dove nest before I left, but when I came home a few hours later, I noticed it was empty. I was happy the nestlings had become fledglings, but was disappointed that I hadn’t been around to see their first flights, and I was surprised that such small birds would disappear so quickly from the vicinity.
Later that afternoon, while doing a little yard work, I noticed a scattering of bird feathers on the lawn near the feeder. The feathers were brown, small and didn’t look fully developed. There were small bits of flesh on some of the quills. Right away, in my heart, I was sure my doves had died. I looked around for more remains or – hopefully – a survivor, but discovered no more clues. It pained me to think the little doves had died on their maiden voyage. I thought about cats and thought how thoughtless cat owners allow their pets to roam free to playfully destroy so much wildlife. I thought of the quote: “The boys threw the stones in sport, but the frogs died in earnest.”
Looking around the yard, I saw both adult doves moving about the yard, flying from perch to perch, cooing, and in their quiet dove way, looking agitated. I got my ladder to climb up and make sure both babies were gone. As I did, one of the adults landed and walked across the roof, coming within four feet of me as if to ask, “Where are my babies? Can you help me find them?”
Just then, I heard a commotion as a small hawk, possibly a sharp-shinned or coopers hawk, chased by a blue jay, landed in one of the maples in the backyard. I wondered if that could explain the missing babies and wondered if the hawk could have taken them right from the nest. I'm sure it’s all the same to the doves, but I somehow prefer to think that the babies died as a meal for a magnificent hawk than as playthings for a neighborhood cat.
I felt a strange sadness as I went back to my work. I thought about how hard the doves worked to build a nest, incubate the eggs, feed the nestlings and keep them warm through the cold rains we’ve had. Now, the babies were gone and the parents seemed so upset. Did they see their babies die? What did they feel? Do they feel horror? Do they feel sadness? Do they grieve? I know animals don’t think and feel the way humans do, but I know these birds sensed a loss.
Maybe the mournful cooing of the dove is a song of sadness for all the babies these gentle, defenseless birds have lost throughout time. Will they start over? What else can they do? How much loss can they endure before they give up?
When I came home this evening, I saw two doves sitting side-by-side on a tree branch near where the babies died. At least they still have each other.

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