Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Springtime in New England: Coda

pringtime in New England also looks like this . . .

Same town as the previous post, just a couple of days apart. "If you don't like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes," is what people here say, and people here are right. (The people actually have Mark Twain to thank for that saying, according to my exhaustive research -- okay, the thirty or so seconds I spent on snopes.com.)

These snapshots are of a small piece of open space right on the harbor, pretty much in downtown Milford. It has its own beauty even on a day as gray as this. A pair of kingfishers were by the water, flying in their crazy ziggy-zaggy way and occasionally darting out to try and spear a fish. I wouldn't have even noticed them, except that I was lucky enough to be there with Frank, the director of the Connecticut Audubon Society's Coastal Center at Milford Point. He is phenomenally attuned -- in a sixth-sense gifted kind of way -- to the merest flutter of a wing. I'm sure he knows what a bird is about to do before even it does!

Kingfishers kind of alarm me, to be honest. When I first heard one, only a few days ago, I just froze, because there I was in Connecticut, hearing what sounded almost like the notes -- bone-chilling to me -- that rend the air as a laughing kookaburra starts up. Well, turns out a kookaburra is a type of kingfisher. Apparently you can still be a kingfisher even if you don't fish, live in a eucalypt a long way from the water and eat lizards and insects -- or preferably delicious barbecue morsels. I used to love seeing and hearing the most iconic (if evil-sounding) bird of my homeland, and I like the fact that I can find its cousin here on the other side of the world.

Belted kingfisher. (Kevin Cole, www.kevinlcole.com)

Laughing kookaburra.
(Pic: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Springtime in New England

Spring in New England looks like this.

Almost overnight, everything has started to bloom. The daffodils and cherry blossoms. Yellow forsythia everywhere. Green shoots on trees, and buds about to burst. A sky almost searingly blue. Am I the only one who sometimes believes that nature must surely be putting on a display just to match their emotions? It's been a long winter of hibernation, and I'm glad to be coming back to life again.

I spent all Saturday afternoon sitting in my friend's backyard -- a bird shangri-la with about ten feeders offering a smorgasbord of thistle, safflower, sunflower, millet, peanuts, suet, you name it. Cardinals, pine siskins, goldfinches, mourning doves, grackles, downy woodpeckers. I watched one sweet little female goldfinch. She perched at the feeder for at least an hour, occasionally pecking a thistle or just looking around, soaking up a bit of sun. I mean, what better for a finch to do on a day like this?

I have a weakness for squirrels, so I put down a big handful of cashews for them as well. This one squirrel kept darting over, picking up a nut, and fleeing up a tree to devour his treasure. Eventually he decided I was no threat, and then he just sat his butt down and devoured cashew after cashew, till I worried I was committing some kind of squirrel endangerment. Look at the frenzy in that eye! I think he's even clutching not one but two nuts in his rodenty little paws.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Death and resurrection

You don't need to be a Christian to appreciate the symbolism of Easter. In the northern hemisphere, you can see it in nature all around you: it is a time when the cycles of death and resurrection are merging. Winter is being overtaken, in fits and starts, by spring. The earth and branches, seemingly dead these past months, reveal that the life you had forgotten lay beneath and within them the whole time. You can see it in the sparrows nesting in the eaves of your house, bringing dry dead straw and grass piece by piece to build their nests, in which new life will soon hatch. In the ducks and geese stopping over in coastal areas on their way north. In the knowledge that the songbirds will soon arrive, that they are inching your way each night, following the stars.

And perhaps you see the pattern in your own life, too. Perhaps you know that something needs to die, be left behind, so that out of it fresh life will spring.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The nature of anger

I have never been skilled in the field of anger. Feeling it, expressing it, owning it. Very rarely would I get in a verbal fight. Except with the occasional customer service person in a call center somewhere. So much easier to summon up fury with a stranger -- cowardly, but true. (And there was that memorable time I totally lost it at a cinema clerk when I discovered five minutes into the film that they were playing live music over the top of one of my favorite movies, The Seventh Seal. And I mean really lost it.)

I used to think it was a positive thing that I spared those near and dear from angry outbursts and that everyone remarked on my calmness in the face of conflict (the despoiling of Ingmar Bergman movies aside).

But is it really such a great thing, a thing to be proud of, that I am unable to focus in and feel the full effect when someone does something that really should make me angry? Where does that anger go? There is something to be said for the sheer purity of animal anger. These geese were acting out of deep instinct. They didn't take time to ponder or analyze my motivation in walking near their territory. Maybe I have something to learn from them.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The furious geese

Canada geese must be among the most unpopular birds in North America. People hate the way they take over parks, gardens, harbors, ponds, the verges of roadsides -- in fact, pretty much anywhere there's a blade of grass. People complain, most of all, about the way flocks of these big birds mess all over their lawns.

Okay, maybe it's because I don't have a lawn, but I love Canada geese. The way they honk their way across the sky in formation never fails to make me smile (especially if I was walking along staring at my shoes worrying about something). The way they honk their way across the street en masse, taking their own merry time, even though a line of cars is forming. Their velvety black necks.

Most of all, I love how furious they can be. On one side of Charles Island, off Milford, my friend Amar Kaur and I had to walk past what I am guessing were territories staked out by pairs of Canada geese settling in for the spring to nest. Canada geese mate not just for a season, but for life. Perhaps these have been their territories for many seasons before this. Though we were not close to any nests, we must have encroached on their invisible (to us) boundaries, because every twenty yards or so we were chased by a different pair of honking birds, necks held rigid, pitching themselves forward.

One goose in particular was not just protective and defensive; he was surely angry. I could feel his loathing. (Tsk, not only am I endowing this bird with human emotion, I am assuming it was male.) His honks were vicious; he opened his beak wide and, I swear, poked out his pink tongue. He flew right for our faces, and it was only when Amar Kaur waved a big stick in the air that he (resentfully) backed off. I turned around to catch a picture of this especially furious goose, and there he was, still facing me with utter defiance:

When we had passed, off he and his mate bustled into the thickets of the island, happily snuffling to themselves. They had class.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Rookery at Charles Island

Yesterday I went out to Charles Island, a mass of rocks, vines, and tangled thickets in Milford harbor. It can be reached on foot only for an hour or two when the tide is at its lowest, along a narrow tombolo. Once May arrives, the island will be a no-go zone, as it is a protected rookery for herons and egrets. Getting across the tombolo, the weather was grim, the skies were like lead, and the wind was fierce. On the island, though, it was a wonderland, a wild kingdom. My lovely and intrepid friend Amar Kaur and I saw at least 100 black-crowned night herons dotting the trees. Great egrets, with their long lacy breeding plumage trailing down like evening gowns, had their nests in the treetops.

The longer we looked, the better our eyes got at perceiving the birds. At first, where it seemed there was one or two in a tree, the better our eyes became at seeing, we noticed two or three more, then others still. Makes we wonder about all the other things our eyes must skip over every day.

Out there on Charles Island, it was easy to forget we were so close to modern life, cars, roads, Dunkin Donuts, Wal-mart . . . we heard only the sounds of the waves; the trees and thick vines creaking; the bizarre barking sounds of the herons, so much like a dog; and what my field guide calls the "guttural croak" of the great egrets, though that doesn't do justice to the otherworldly sound, which to my ears is like the clatter of Australian aboriginal clapsticks.

Just as we began to get nervous about making it back across the tombolo before the tide swept back in, the herons started getting restless, too. When I was cozily back home, I looked up my field guide and found out they were heading off for their night-time feast of fish, mollusks, small rodents, frogs, snakes, crustaceans, and even eggs and young birds.

Before we left the island, I was startled, thinking I saw a dog-like face staring at me through the brushes - a coyote? a feral dog? - but it was a white-tailed deer, looking at me with cautious big brown eyes. It headed off along one of the well-worn deer tracks, followed by about a dozen others, all breath-takingly quiet and gentle.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Turkey vultures

There is a cemetery near my house, a historic one where if you look hard enough you find memorials to soldiers from the Revolutionary war. It has rolling slopes of green (when they're not covered in a bed of white snow). Every time I walk by there, I see some kind of wildlife. A woodchuck once. This weekend it was a fleet of turkey vultures. They came up from behind the churchyard, deathly silent, five of them, in formation. The distinctive V-shape they held their wings in; their black outlines in the sky; a band of silvery white feathers on the underside of the wings. They barely needed to flap, just glided - rocking slightly - in the wind. When they were just above me, they went their separate ways, spreading out to search for carrion to feast on. Within a matter of a minute, they had glided so far that they were almost out of sight, and it reminded me why I wish I was a raptor, able to go wherever I choose, with only a moment's forethought.

Pic (C) Michael "Mike" L. Baird bairdphotos.com