Friday, November 30, 2012

On the beach

There is always a flotilla of Mallards down at Fort Trumbull Beach, in Milford. They are no dummies: they hang out there in all weathers, because someone who lives on the beach feeds them every day. God knows the Mallards and a few gulls were the only souls down there yesterday as the sun was setting and the most bitter of winds sliced through every item of clothing on my body. I had pledged to exercise this week after eating over Thanksgiving as if I were one of those poor foie gras ducks, but by the time Thursday came around, I hadn't got past noticing with some excitement that the gym just down the road from our new house is conveniently located right next to Rita's Ice Custard, which happens to purvey possibly the best frozen dessert ever invented. My week's exercise at Fort Trumbull lasted all of about four minutes before it felt as though there were hundreds of tiny razor blades implanted in my fingertips and I scurried back to the car. The ducks are in for the long haul, though...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Emu in the Sky (aka, I'm still on a bit of an emu bender)

Have you ever seen an emu's wings?

This question never crossed my mind until yesterday, when I began reading about emus' stabby, huge (not "quite small"!) bills. I guess that if I'd thought about emus' wings at all, I would have assumed they were that weird shaggy kind of pelt that emus have, as if they're wandering around wearing a blanket all the time.

But there is a reason you've never seen an emu's wings: they're underneath all that shagginess, and they're tiny. Smaller than a crow's. Of course, this makes sense, given that they hardly need wings when they don't fly and can run like something out of Jurassic Park.

The fear I had of them as a child is turning more into fascination and a kind of awe -- but I got a chill when I found the Aboriginal story of how the Emu in the Sky came to be.

The Emu in the Sky is not so much a constellation as a negative heavenly space: the shape of an emu's body formed not from stars but from dark patches of the Milky Way. The giant emu was consigned there for eternity by a husband exacting justice upon the bird for killing his wife, according to people from Papunya, in the Northern Territory.

If you fancy going to this link to a great article about Aboriginal astronomy, it's worth clicking through to the second picture in the slide show: an astonishing photo of the emu's shape visible in the night sky, mirroring an Aboriginal rock carving on the ground below, in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, in Sydney.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Emus are still a bit scary

Do you remember when you were little and certain animals seemed very, very big and scary? Horses freaked me the hell out. Bison, too. I saw one bison my entire childhood, in a zoo, but it made a vivid impression. I will always remember its moth-eaten-looking coat; it's snorting, pawing hugeness; and my irrational conviction that I would some day find myself fronting one, without a moat and a fence between us.

Emus were right up there on my list of frightening animals. They were so much taller than me. Their necks were like furry snakes. Those giant eyelashes and great dark marbles for eyes, boring into you. The only reason the emus were actually staring was to see whether they liked the look of what you had on your sandwich, but that didn't stop me from thinking they were sizing up the best angle of attack. I most feared what they could do with those big triangular beaks.

Thank heavens I didn't know then what I know now: that it's their claws they use for defense, and those claws are strong enough to rip metal fences, and if cornered they kick with their big, three-toed feet. I guess I didn't notice the horrifying feet because I was too busy trying to keep an eye on their terrifying beaks, which always seemed to be erratically darting toward you on that serpentine neck, heading towards the above-mentioned sandwich . . . or, in one memorable case, a couple of Salada biscuits spread with margarine and Vegemite, which an emu snatched from my hands and seemed to quite enjoy. (For those who aren't familiar with this delicacy, Salada biscuits are like Saltine crackers. The best part about them was that when you stuck two of them together with Vegemite and margarine and then forcibly squished down on them with your chubby little fingers, the margarine and Vegemite would extrude out like tiny nubs of white and black spaghetti. Entertainment was much simpler before iPhones.) I'm sorry, Wikipedia, but the emu's bill is not "quite small." It's a gigantic pointy stabby implement.

When Frank found this video today of errant emus wandering the streets of western Sydney and disrupting traffic, I felt certain that as an adult, I would look at their beaks and bobbing heads and realize that my childhood perceptions were all wrong. In fact, seeing them against the suburban backdrop just highlighted how right I was to be awestruck by them. What incredible creatures they are. The way they move, the way they look so confident and inquisitive, the plumage on their backs that looks weirdly like shaggy fur, the general prehistoricness of them...which is no doubt why, as the guy in the pretty phenomenal hat in the video points out, they still don't know to look both ways before they cross the road.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Winter is on the way

Snow is in the forecast. Chickadees and titmice frantically load up at the feeder. Days get shorter. Birds that have spread out through spring and summer come together in flocks again. As the sun sets, there is the incessant flight of crows to their roost. Robins are massing. By day, geese strip the farm fields of summer's leftovers, then settle together in great rafts on nearby ponds. For comfort, security, and warmth? Or are they simply all attracted to the same sheltered places near dwindling food stocks? The mill pond at South Windsor is the avian Grand Central Station. All routes cross here.

Ceaseless honking. Sporadic squabbles. Strange outliers accepted. The solitary Snow Goose. The Barnacle Goose. The one Brant that doesn't know it's meant to be at the beach, not here in the middle of farmland. Four White-fronted Geese, whose orange feet not too long ago probably touched the earth of Greenland, which seems magical to me. The female Black Scoter bobbing limp at the water's edge, her life ending in this improbable place, never making it to the ocean for the winter. A Mallard hybrid who doesn't know his spiffy white bib sets him apart. The shabby-looking Common Merganser that I hope fattens up and makes it through the season.

It seems that every bird as the winter approaches knows that this is a good place to be. Rawk, there goes two Ravens overhead. Great Blue Heron. Red-tailed Hawk. And then there is the peculiar boy with the peculiar dog -- half black Lab, half Chow. The boy proudly proves the dog's Chow ancestry by prising open its willing mouth and showing off its purple tongue to me. "His name's Seamus," he says. "I'm trying to get him to catch one of these geese here, so I can eat it." He throws bread at the birds, which sail around him at a safe distance, watching with canny eyes. "Seamus is an alpha male. He'll attack and kill anything," the boy explains, as the purple-tongued dog snaffles the scattered bread, wags its tail, and lumbers over for a pat, oblivious of the waterfowl.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Things I am grateful for on Thanksgiving

The clear New England sky, bare branches, the oxygen in my lungs, my heart beating in my chest, love and warmth and friends, acceptance, hope, life and memory and the fact that even those who are no longer taking in that oxygen and that crisp autumn sky are still here as long as they are in our memories.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The blog police are coming to get me

Pledging to write every day is tremendous. Structure, discipline, the repetition of writing, writing, writing -- these are really the only things that help you to improve your writing. The idea is awesome. You know what else is awesome? Sleeping. Sleeping is awesome, because you're horizontal and warm. You also have dreams. The dream is what made me suddenly jolt awake and realize that I had slept through my pledge to blog every day for NaBlowhateverit'scalledyoupeoplearelunaticshowcananybodysustainthis. There was a white ping-pong ball on the floor that I had to move, because -- for some very complicated reasons -- if I didn't move it, a door was going to slam and I was going to wake up. I woke up anyway, and realized that the ping pong ball was really my subconscious's symbol for my bladder. (It was nice for my subconscious to finally give me something relatively easy to decode. If anyone can solve the mystery of the giant green-gray, glossy sea creature that looked like a cross between a whale and a dinosaur and was so massive and had such an intense gravitational force that, if it wasn't for the giant sheet of Plexiglas I was watching it through, I would have been sucked into the scary, roiling, dark waters of a harbor that looked kind of like Sydney Harbour but wasn't, I'd be really grateful.) It was when I was returning to bed from the bathroom and saw that it was 4:37 that I realized I had failed in my pledge. Does it help that it was a mere four hours and thirty-seven minutes after the deadline that I at least thought about it? Is there a blog altar that I can perform some kind of  penance at?

(Picture: By Charles R. Knight (Making of America) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why are turkeys called turkeys?

We do some dreadfully unfair things to turkeys at this time of year. Case in point:

(Just spare a thought for a moment for the stylist who worked on this shot. You know it took hours.) 
The rest of the year -- when we're not plucking, roasting, devouring, or shoving "beaming orange taper candles" in ceramic simulacra of them -- we make their name an insult. A turkey is a dud, a flop, an embarrassing failure. A turkey is an inept fool.

I don't think Wild Turkeys are dopes. I think they're majestic and gorgeous, strutting and wobbling their wattles and preening feathers that to me look like some kind of lustrous suit of armor.

Wild Turkeys, Arizona (Photo by Frank Gallo)

Wild Turkey, Arizona (Photo by Frank Gallo)
The English language is cumbersome and clotted with history. Pull on any word in any sentence, and the thread will just keep unspooling through your fingertips. Duds and flops are called turkeys because people underestimate turkeys . . . but turkeys were called turkeys in the first place because people in England mistakenly thought they came from Turkey. And it wasn't just that they mistakenly thought they came from Turkey. They mistook them for an entirely different bird. This bird:

Guinea fowl (Photo by Fir002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons)
Guinea fowls don't come from Turkey, either. They're from Africa. But they were imported via Turkey, which was good enough, apparently. As to how anybody got a turkey confused with a guinea fowl, I think the only excuse for that would be if the guinea fowl was in a form such as this:

Mmm, delicious-looking guinea fowl. (Photo by By FASTILY via Wikimedia Commons)
The pre-Columbian people of Mexico were the first to domesticate turkeys, and the conquistadors took turkeys back to Spain in the early 16th century. Rumors of their deliciousness spread to other parts of Europe, and then the English got involved and suddenly the birds were called turkeys, even though they were not Turkish or Spanish but Mexican. If the English language was fair and made sense, we would be eating mexicos, not turkeys. 

English colonists took turkeys with them and introduced them to North America in the 17th century. Of course, the species was already here, and Native Americans had been eating them for goodness knows how many generations. What this means, though, is that the birds we buy this week at the grocery store are all actually descended from Mexican turkeys. I think my brain is about to explode. 

And then after all that, I discovered that we should really be eating eels this Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The most disturbing shot of a Tufted Titmouse you have ever seen

Thank you, auto-focus, for completely blurring the Black-capped Chickadee I was attempting to photograph. Were you trying to send me a message? Were you trying to warn me of the true demonic intent of the chickadee's Tufted Titmouse ally? The bird looks as though it is planning - and capable of - world domination.

I only noticed this shot when I downloaded pics from my camera today hoping that I would have got a lovely one of the Red-throated Loon I saw at the Connecticut Audubon's Coastal Center at Milford Point this afternoon.

But I had only photos that frustratingly could never quite capture the beauty of the bird or the late afternoon autumn light.

The whole idea was to find a stunning image because today I didn't have much time for writing. I spent most of it down at the Coastal Center learning about the impact of two amazing people, Noble Proctor (astonishing naturalist, professor, author) and Helen Hays (force of nature, chairwoman of the Great Gull Island Project). A celebration was held for them, and it was beautiful to see how they had changed the lives of everyone they have taught and inspired, from ages 17 to 100. One of the things I love about the birding community is the tradition of mentoring and of having respect for those who have so much to teach us about the natural world.

The sun set over the marsh seemed especially vivid in their honor . . .

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Things I am grateful for today

  • The sun's surprise reminder of warmth on my face when I step into the backyard after lurking in bed sick with a cold
  • That the starling sitting at the top of the spruce tree soaking up the rays doesn't feel remotely offended that my immediate thought upon resolving its shape into something I recognize is "Oh, just a starling"
  • The moment when a gull goes overhead and I get a hit of dopamine as my brain toys for a split-second with whether it might, in fact, be a cool raptor
  • That Mourning Doves look so peaceful and naive when they're plodding around beneath the feeder, but when they think you're not looking, engage in vicious territorial disputes with each other
  • The fact that the silence and privacy I prize too dearly is broken by my neighbor starting a conversation
  • The hot drink of lemon juice and water and honey that soothes my jagged throat and makes me think of my dad standing in the kitchen making this
  • The chicken that is being transformed with red wine into a stew in the crock pot 
  • This cosseted life of hot tea and warm baths and double-paned windows 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Some days the only thing that makes sense is nature

Some days the only thing that truly seems to make sense to me is nature. Some days I wonder how we ended up so far removed from our animal selves. In increments, over many thousands of years, it happened -- until here I am now on the highway, entering my second hour of infuriating, insane-making, stop-start traffic. Roll forward a foot. Stop. Roll forward a foot. Stop. Encased in metal. Powered by an engine I don't understand. Entirely sealed off from the hundreds of people stretching in front and behind me on this jammed roadway as far as I can see, one person per metal capsule. Furious, isolated, trapped, and somehow each finding it one of life's great unfairnesses that we should be the ones to suffer like this.

And here the animal self does bubble up, for a moment at least: the guy behind me who just can't take it any more honks his horn, long and loud and drawn out. And then it bubbles up in me, as I wave my arms and shout back at him in the rear-view mirror. Blood vessels throb in my brain, and I feel as though I could do some damage.

Then the animal self ebbs away again, our reptile brains retreating as the other driver and I shake our heads clear and see the logic of the situation, once again accept this peculiar life that we have created for ourselves. Pavements, and suits with ties, and lipstick, and little rectangular objects we carry with us everywhere to connect ourselves to . . . to . . . what exactly?

A male Northern Cardinal shoots like a scarlet missile across the road, followed quickly by a female, duller but more subtle and just as beautiful. Two Red-tailed Hawks are circling high up in a thermal above the road, elegantly slicing through the air. Inexplicably, something about them up there and me down here makes me feel teary. I put the window down and hear a Goldfinch calling, the sound coming to me in waves as the bird rises and dips in flight: potato chip, potato chip, potato chip.

I have to consciously fight the urge to pull off onto the grassy verge, abandon my metal capsule and walk into the woods. Yes, these woods are degraded and despoiled and weed-entangled, filled with trash and runoff and cigar wrappers and Bud light cans. But deer also graze here. Woodchucks barrel along. Orchids grow. Baby birds call to be fed. Bluejays make sounds like rusty gates swinging in the breeze. Crows skulk. Squirrels pounce. I know I would last nary a night out here with no electricity or grocery stores or the rule of law. But right now, even that seems appealing. Nature is so much less cryptic, so much more honest, in its brutalities.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Backyard bird symphony

The pulse and flow of birds coming to the feeder are like a symphony. Early on in the day, the House Sparrows emerge from their favorite shrub. One by one, they chime in. They build, and will be there throughout the piece, like the hard-working string section. Titmice swell in numbers. So do the Chickadees, who will be constant, too -- a frantic drumbeat of energy. Even when I'm running around the yard in my pyjamas chasing squirrels up the maple tree, they will doggedly cling to the feeder, dee-dee-deeing and eat-eat-eating. The Bluejays enter, a flash of cornflower blue to liven things up. A Downy Woodpecker hops around the maple, awaiting its cue. The White-breasted Nuthatches are always late. I don't know where they are at sunrise, but it is a couple of hours before their delicate tapping and soft scuttling and meeping join in with the rest of the orchestra. They are punctuated by the occasional Red-breasted Nuthatch for a bit of drama. I look forward to the sweet pause for a goldfinch to land and take a seed; it's like a gentle oboe solo. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is random, like a gong when you least expect it. And when everything falls still and I wonder why the players are taking a break, I look out, and there it is, like the ominous roll of the timpani: a raptor skirting low over the yard. The Cooper's Hawk, looking for an easy snack.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It's okay to play

Though it may not be apparent from some of the ridiculousness on this blog, I have an unfortunate tendency to over-think things and turn my brain into a mental stew. This happens especially when I am left on my own for extended periods (which happens to be every workday). I wish I could say that I become cerebral in a witty, Woody Allen kind of way, but it's in more of a Malcolm Fraser kind of way. For any readers who aren't Australians born prior to 1980, he was the elected leader of Australia whose super-fun motto was "Life wasn't meant to be easy."* It helped with the whole effect that he looked about as happy and carefree as one of those chiseled statues on Easter Island.

Just try having a fun picnic near this bust of Malcolm Fraser in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens.
A thought hangs over me sometimes when I'm looking at beautiful birds through my binoculars: birds don't get the chance to do frivolous things like this, so why should I? Nature is all about survival. There's no time for leisure. No time for pointless activities.

If you're not building a nest, you're going to extreme lengths to find a mate. If you're not hunkered down over your eggs in a relentless storm, you're fighting off a predator. If you're gorging on food, it's not just because you feel like it but because you have to survive a long migration across the ocean.

So if you're a Hooded Crow in snowy Russia and you find the lid from a jar of mayonnaise at the dump, you . . . use it like a snowboard, of course!

It's so pointless!

So utterly, fabulously, joyously pointless!

There will be enough hard days. There will be plenty of time when all the serious business of life is like a heavy black overcoat. So the next time I find a metaphorical mayonnaise lid, I'm going sledding.

*After retiring from politics, Mal was found wandering, dazed and trouserless, in the lobby of a seedy Memphis hotel favored by hookers, so apparently even he could maintain such dourness for only so long.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sod off, ya' furry bastard

Day 1. 9.00 a.m. Frank puts the first bird feeder out on the deck of our new place. "How long will it take before the birds find it?" I excitedly wonder.

9.20 a.m. Titmice and House Sparrows are just about elbowing one another off the feeder. Mourning Doves are sitting below, chowing down. Juncos come. Chickadees. Bluejays. The yard springs to life. Birds are whizzing out of shrubs, taking seeds, returning to their shrubs to devour their tasty morsels, coming back for more. This is awesome.

9.22 a.m. We have just come through a hurricane followed by snowstorm, so I guess it's no wonder that the  birds are acting as if they're competing in The Hunger Games. One particularly feisty White-breasted Nuthatch is doing something I've never seen a nuthatch do: every time another nuthatch comes near the feeder, it fans its wings out and hops about doing a long meeeep. To me it sounds like a muppet on Valium, but judging by the effect it's having, this call is clearly very menacing to a rival nuthatch. In contrast to all the avian aggression, when a squirrel appears on the railing of the deck, it looks tremendously relaxed. 

9.23 a.m. Squirrels are SO CUTE. It isn't eating any of the bird seed that is being scattered all over the ground. It's sitting there slowly cleaning itself with its paws, just like a cat.

9.24 a.m.  Now thoroughly groomed, the squirrel sits back on its haunches, casually takes a sunflower seed, and eats it in a leisurely way. People who hate squirrels and get all antsy about them coming to their bird feeders are so uptight. They're discriminatory species-ists.

10.30 a.m. Time for a cup of tea. I'm so glad Frank put this feeder here near the kitchen window, because now I can watch all these lovely birds. House Sparrows are birds. Wow, that squirrel must have been half starved. The poor thing. It's still in exactly the same place -- slowly, methodically eating.

12.00 p.m. And eating.

1.30 p.m. This squirrel obviously has a glandular problem. It may need to go to the vet. 

2.15 p.m. Can squirrels explode? 

2.30 p.m. I bring the feeder in for the day, for the animal's own good. 

Day 2. 10.00 a.m. What is that sporadic crashing sound? It's like I'm on a ship in a gale and someone forgot to batten a hatch. 

10.02 a.m. I think the feeder looks better further away from the house. That way you get a nicer view of the fighty nuthatches . . . and ooh, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, some lovely goldfinches in their subtle winter plumage, and the first House Finch for the yard. Plus, every time the squirrel launched itself from the railing onto the feeder, it nearly crashed through the kitchen window, at risk of injuring itself. 

3.30 p.m. Hey, there are three squirrels now.

Day 3. Interesting fact. According to Wikipedia, urban squirrels rarely get to celebrate their first birthday.

Day 4. I return to the breakfast table after going to fill the feeder. "How do you spell 'sod off'?" Frank asks. 
"S-O-D . . . O-F-F," I reply.
"It doesn't have a hyphen?" he asks.
"Um, no. Why?"
It's a term you don't hear much around these parts, apparently. A term that, he alleges, I yelled out while filling the bird feeder -- as in, "Sod off, ya' furry bastard!"
I tell him that in the British colonies, "sod off" is a quaint term of endearment.

Day 5. They sense that we have awoken. I tiptoe through the house, but they know we are here. I think they hear when the rhythm of our breathing changes. They watch. They wait. They line up on the fence in anticipation. There is no escape . . .

Monday, November 12, 2012

A birdy poem for a cloudy day

The simultaneously funny, wise, and poignant Jess at Life With Gusto just solved a mystery for me: what NaBloPoMo means (National Blog Posting Month, where bloggers pledge to make daily posts for the month of November). I could have looked it up before now, but I knew another, more savvy person would get around to it (thanks, Jess!).

I'm 12 days late to the party, but as Einstein said, "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once." (The only reason I know that quote is because it's a chapter opener in a book I'm copyediting. Thanks, clever and very personable client!) Jess is holding her own version of NaBLoPoMo, blogging every day until her next baby is born. I don't have that kind of stamina, so I'm going to try NaBloPo2.5 (National Blog Posting Two-and-a-Half Weeks). Today, a birdy poem:

Saline air
Clouds aching to rain
Cormorant and kingfisher together on the dock
A chaos of fish flop in the shallow water
Three mallards shoot by,
wheezing like squeaky bed springs with every wing beat.

The world outside my own head:
it cracks me open and washes me clean.