Hunting the Giant Bullfrog

I am wading through chin-deep grass toward the pond. At the far reaches of my lamp, two pair of low, narrow-set eyes watch me for a moment, then slink into the woods. Gray foxes? I have seen them in that corner of the farm before, and these eyes did not move like the litany of others I might encounter—possums, raccoons, armadillos, coyotes. From a few feet in the trees, they turn once more in my direction then disappear.

As I near the edge of the pond, the once distant chorus drawing me is now beginning to surround me. It is almost June and the late winter songs of peepers, chorus frogs and American toads have been supplanted by the clacks cricket frogs, short, the rich trills of gray tree frogs, green frogs sounding like guitars swallowing their fattest strings, and the deep, squelching bassoons we call bullfrogs. It is the latter I hunt, not with gig or net, but with audio recorder and lens.

The sweet spot for bullfrogs is a quarter of the way around the pond to my right, but I will take the long way, giving eyes, step, and stealth time to adjust to the night. A shiny forehead greats me at the marge, and I am hopeful. Many of these walks net not a single sighting. A bullfroglet, still sporting the scars of tail and gills, sits motionless in an inch of water. Any more than that would cover him completely. I pull out the camera and manage two clicks before he flees the intrusion.

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A giant bullfrog bellows behind me as I begin a slow circumnavigation. I will be patient.

Occasional splashes precede me as I am discovered more easily than I would like. By the lengths of jumps and volume of splashes, I guess these to be small to medium bullfrogs, or green frogs. I slow my pace.

Halfway around the shore, I see my prey. He is not the giant, but is larger than my fist, and I freeze. These big ones are big because they are alert and wary. In slow motion, I remove my lens cap, tilt back my hat, and lift the camera to my eye. I forgot to change the batteries in my flashlight before leaving the house, and It is too dim for auto focus, so I reach forward and set the lens to manual. It is awkward holding camera and flashlight on target, while also focusing, but I manage. The shiny green frog emerges in the viewfinder, I press the shutter halfway, and he leaps forward. I watch him under water for a few feet until he fades into the depths.

Several times I stop along the route for loud green frogs or cricket frogs, but come up empty. At times, I can hear as many as a dozen voices within three feet of me in the grass or the rushes, but never see a single frog until I almost step on a green frog who gives me a start as he explodes from underfoot.

I am nearing the sweet spot. The booming voice of what must be the biggest bullfrog in the pond is just beyond a small wooden pier. I approach as slowly as I am able, but as soon as I came into the open at the foot of the pier, he stops. I sit on the pier for ten minutes recording, and never hear him again. This is what I have come to expect.

When I get back to the house, I find that I didn’t close the door behind me, and I left a light on in the living room, so the house is filled with insects. A large green lacewing greets me just inside the door. I consider capturing his portrait, I think about moving him outside, but I am eager to write, so I leave him alone. Perhaps if he is still there when I am ready for bed, I will usher him to the garden. He would be a good counter to the aphids on my tomatoes. If not, I’m sure plenty of prey made it in the house with him. I will allow him to do his work here.

As I sit down to write, cricket frogs are clacking away through the open window. Cutting through them like a semi truck on a go-cart track, the giant bullfrog by the pier declares his presence once more. He knows I am gone. He knows he is safe. And I suspect he knows I will be back looking for him soon.

Queen Walter of the Little Pond

There is one largemouth bass in my pond. By bass standards she is not particularly large, but by small pond standards, I would call her a lunker. I say she is the only one because in three years of observing and fishing my little pond, she is the only one I have seen. The pond is populated mostly by red-eared sunfish and frogs. These more abundant residents, no doubt, fall prey to the patrolling behemoth who I suspect eats just about anything she wants.

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Spring Peeper at Pond Edge

I had just moved to the little farm on the mountain when I first encountered her. While casting a small spinner to see who lived in the neighborhood, I saw her lying along the south bank in the shade, ignoring the sparkly lure that easily fooled one shell cracker after another. I switched to some larger baits, tried topwater and jigs. When I tossed a rubber worm in front of her, she ran so fast you’d think I had thrown a stick of dynamite in the water. That was when I named her after the giant trout of legend in the movie On Golden Pond. “Henceforth you will known as Queen Walter of the Pond,” I told her. “The one who will not be caught.”

Over the seasons, I have pulled countless sunfish and a handful of crappie from the pond, but mostly I stalk the edges for frogs. Beginning in February, there is a succession of them—chorus frogs, peepers, cricket frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs… Year round, bullfrog tadpoles dart from my shadow as I make my way along the bank. I always feel little guilty for flushing them from the safety of the shallows to the deeper water where Walter lurks.

Young Bullfrog
Young Bullfrog

When the water is low I find crawfish holes, each surrounded by telltale mounds of excavated mud, and imagine Walter eating them, too. Occasionally, I hear a kingfisher chattering in the direction of the pond, but he never sticks around. Slightly more frequently, a great blue heron can be found wading in the shallow end and, somewhat regularly, a pair of Canada geese spend their morning foraging the shallows.

But it is Walter who, for me, defines the pond. An apex predator with no full-time rival, her movements and feeding schedule surely dictating the habits of all other inhabitants of the little pond.

In some ways, she is like the giant buck who lives in the woods where I hunt. Last year, on the final day of the season, he and I entered into a standoff lasting nearly twenty minutes. From twenty-five yards, we stared each other down, each waiting for the other to make a move. In the end, he made a swift turn and disappeared back down the path, his ten point rack fading into the forest. Since that encounter, I cannot visit those woods without thinking about the big buck, and although I was hunting deer when I met him, I am glad he escaped my rifle. Knowing he is still out there makes sitting in those woods more exciting. Had I killed him, that ultimate potential of the woods would be lost. Without him, I might still hope to see a big buck, but there would be no reason to expect one. Similarly, Walter provides that highest possibility when I fish the pond. Every time I cast a lure into the deep end, I know there is a chance of hooking Walter. But there is a fundamental difference between the buck in the woods and the fish in the pond.

This season, as winter rains refilled the pond, I took my spinning rod out to see what sunfish survived the drought. Usually, a sixteenth ounce spinner practically guarantees red-ears. I slipped through the broom sedge on the east side of the pond, found a break in the blackberry, and flipped a cast to the middle of the deep end. On my third cast, the spinner had no sooner hit the water than it was hammered. I set the hook and my ultralight rod doubled. Walter dove deep, then shot to the surface. In the air, she twisted and contorted, giving her all to shedding the offense embedded in her jaw. She ran, she jumped, she dove, but ultimately, she tired and I lifted her from her watery home.

In the sunlight, Walter is a beautiful fish covered in rich green spots with a shiny, silvery-white, fat belly. Concentrated food in a drought-shrunken pond had clearly treated Walter well over the past several months! I removed the tiny hook, and admired her for a moment, then gently slipped her back home where she quickly turned and disappeared.

The ability to handle and release is the difference between bass and buck. There is no returning a buck once he is caught. Had I shot the buck, his woods would be forever changed (until another matures to take his place). His presence would no longer determine the status of every other buck in his woods, his DNA would no more influence the traits of so many fawns who begin life in the woods each spring. Of course, being the only bass in the small pond, Walter will have no opportunity to pass on her genes, but her presence will will continue to be felt by all who swim her waters.

One evening last week I spent an hour casting for red-ears while waiting for the frogs to begin their seasonal daily ritual. Over that hour I caught no fish, leaving me concerned that Walter might have taken a large toll on the sunfish during the drought. How else can I account for catching not a single shell cracker on a warm evening with a shiny spinner?

Following my hour of fishing, I went about the more important work of stalking and photographing spring peepers. I photographed a half dozen males, their vocal sacs full of air, calling for mates. At times, I was surrounded by so many peeping peepers and chorusing choruses that traffic on the nearby road was drowned out. I have read that largemouth bass can decimate frog populations in a pond, but clearly Walter has not had that effect. I wonder, though, if last summer was the year for her to thin out the red-ears, might next year be the time she thins out the frogs? Another difference between bass and buck is that I don’t have to worry about a buck eating my amphibians.

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Peeping for a Mate

Since long before this tract of land was domesticated, the ephemeral creek that forms its east border, and the marsh it flows into, have supported frogs and plenty who might prey on them—crows, raccoons, perhaps herons in the open areas… Now they are also preyed upon by Walter—an extension of man’s hand on the landscape.

People who preceded me on this mountain based their decisions on who gets to stay not on what is best for ecosystems, but on what made them comfortable. There are too many deer in the woods because they were uncomfortable with wolves and lions. At the same time, they dammed the waters and added predators they were comfortable with—namely largemouth bass. Now I am left to decide how to manage the aftermath. I am confident the big buck’s presence or absence has little effect on overall deer population, but I am not yet certain of the effect of a big bass on the frog population.

Bass, buck, and frog—one in hand, one in my memory, one preserved digitally, all left to fill their niches, at least for now. Next year I will have my camera in the woods with me in case the buck wanders my way again. I like the idea of capturing him the same way I do the frogs, and will decide then whether he ends up in the freezer. I will continue to stalk, camera in hand, the many amphibians who make the pond their breeding grounds throughout the spring. But as for Walter, I don’t know if she will be granted a second pardon should the opportunity arise. That is something that will require more thought. One thing I am certain of, is that knowing there is a bass in the pond holds little appeal for me if I cannot hear frogs on a warm, late-winter Georgia night.

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Shopping on Black Friday

A slender moon waxing to first quarter waits for the chasing sun to steel it’s glory as I scan the woods with adjusting eyes. The west provides the most likely approach and so receives my attention. As the sun flirts with the horizon behind me, extending the reach of my eye ahead, heavy soft clouds slowly take back all that dawn granted until I am enveloped. Turning back to the east, neither sun nor moon remain. Forty yards out, a silent, shadowy figure slips through the thick air. Coyote, perhaps? Deer? Whoever passes by, the stillness surely robbed her of my scent just as the cloud denied me her identity, and she fades away both unaware and unknown.

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When the woods are unseen, every sound is richer. A distant great horned owl keeps me company with a series of morning hoots while squirrels keep me vigilant, asking time and again “Are you a deer?” Slowly the cloud thinned, and woods return. Pileated woodpeckers laugh and rap, and somewhere in the distance the crack of a hunter’s rifle signals success for another who chooses shopping for venison rather than sales on this black Friday. I wonder if shoppers in the mall find as much satisfaction there, amid domestic chaos and competition for excess, as I find here bathed in wild minimalism.

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After four hours of sitting silently, sipping my tea, the need to slip back to earth arises and I climb from my perch with as little disruption as I am able. Carefully, I ease eastward along the old fence. A bent No Trespassing sign warns others against joining me on this side. Across man’s imagined boundary, a series of young trees suffer the aggression of a young buck, their bark and cambium stripped away, yellow sapwood abraded and raw.

Reaching the edge of the woods, I find the shell of a box turtle resting in the grass, belly up, abdominal scutes still plated and attached to the shell, and I wonder how he ended up this way. Was this upending the cause of his demise?

Climbing the dam, I crouch low, aware that deer often bed in the tall grass east of the shallow, spring-fed pond. A kingfisher chatters loudly. There are no deer to be seen when I crest, only the kingfisher lighting atop a stump in the mostly dry pond bed. Seeing me, she flies in two great swoops to a tree on the far bank. I sit in the grass and watch until she decides to cross the farm to another hunting ground.

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Circling the pond, I come across another line of buck rubs, these ones on larger trees and higher on the trunks. Two years ago, I saw four large bucks bedded here. Perhaps one of them is still visiting. The old coyote den shows fresh evidence of excavation after two years of dormancy. Perhaps the figure I saw in the woods this morning lives here?

I circumnavigate the pond to find three killdeer standing motionless in the late morning sun, and I stop to take a couple photos. They are too far for the shots I would like given the small lens with which I am equipped, but they don’t mind my presence and I sit with them for a few minutes before completing the loop back to my stand.

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Lunch is now beckoning, so I walk to the truck. Following lunch, a full belly calls for a nap.

Rested, I return to my stand with a couple hours of light remaining. I carefully scan 360 degrees, then arrange camera, tea and phone on the bench beside me. A friend has joined me this evening in a tree 130 years behind me and I send him a quick text to ensure he knows the rules—either sex is allowed. I turn the ringer off and place my phone face down next to the camera and scan to the west. Yellows and oranges seem to have faded to browns over the past week, but the reds, deep and rich, are brought to life by the low sun—my kind of holiday decorations!

As I turn back to the south, the sun finds a pathway through the trees catching my glasses and reflecting harsh spots on four does standing fifty yards in front of me. With neither snort nor stomp, they jump and scatter. Four tails disappearing with four single bounds, and in seconds the woods are quiet. Oh, well. I remove my reading glasses and set them with the phone beside me.

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Time passes quickly watching a setting sun through autumn woods and, with it, my shopping trip is over and Black Friday  fades to darkness.

Warbling In The Clouds

It is eight o’clock in the morning and my day has peaked. It will not get any better than it is right now. How could it?

After staying up late chatting with a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) that wandered into my living room last night, I did not get up until seven this morning—later than I prefer this time of year when the days are lengthening. I donned pants and slippers and walked to the south porch to greet the morning. After pulling third shift without a break, the clouds were enjoying a well-earned rest, lying in the cool grass of the meadow before me. Clouds do that here. When they are tired, they settle down on top of the mountain until, recharged, they lift back up and go on their way. I am fortunate to live in such a place. This morning, I am particularly fortunate for, through the cloud, I hear a birdsong I do not recognize.

My life with birdsongs is like the card game Concentration. There are many familiar birdsong cards, but until I turn them over, I am rarely sure which bird is on the other side. The regulars I recognize. Even if I am unsure of their match, I hear a song, and know its card is in my deck. The song I hear this morning is not one I have been hearing on the farm of late. It is not in my deck, and I am excited. I step back into the house for camera, binoculars, and proper shoes for playing bird concentration.

Back outside, the voice sounds even closer than before, and soon I have it pinpointed near the crown of a holly—a tall tree with dense foliage. My monopod, with camera attached, leans against my shoulder as I direct binoculars towards the sound. All I see is a soup of bright, shiny, spiky green, but I know he is in there somewhere and I keep looking. I am south of the tree. To the north and west, the holly merges with pear trees that are both dark and dense. There is no good angle on that side. I have half the tree to work with and slip around to the east where I see something move. I re-position. Back and forth between binoculars, camera, and naked eye, moving right and left, I listen, and look, and listen, and look.

A flash of yellow, black, white confirms my suspicion that the song is from a warbler. The bird disappears for a moment, then hops towards the light. I raise binoculars, and he moves quickly out of sight. However fleeting, my visual contact was enough. Magnolia warbler. A handsome devil, he sports thin white eyeliner to match his thick white wing bar. A smart black neckerchief is set off by bold yellow throat and breast that is defined by broken black longitudinal stripes on either side. A gray cap completes his ensemble and proves he is a gentleman ready for the ball. I want a better look!

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A Handsome Warbler

Along with many warbler species, magnolias are merely passing through on their way from their wintering grounds in Central America to breeding grounds in Canada. Many seasoned birders have probably seen many magnolia warblers by this time in their migration. These are not rare or unusual birds, and I suspect they are rather routine for them—species to be checked off their lists, not worthy of dallying. The birders’ list is long, and the season is short. There are rare species, unexpected visitors to be tracked down, firsts of the year, the county, the state, life. These take precedent, I understand. What time is there to just stand and stare at a bird that has been checked off already when others await? Progress must go on, and so must they. On to the next species.

I am not a good birder, though. I recognize very few songs, and keep no life list, and have to keep field guide at hand if I am to identify what I see. This was a rare migratory bird for me, in that I was able to identify it without the book. (Though I looked it up later to confirm.) Without a list to fill, my goal is simple. Having found this bird, I want to be with it, to watch it, to listen, to soak in its sweet, sweet song, to marvel at its paint job, to observe its behavior for as long as I can. I kneel in the saturated grass, and adjust my support, tilting the camera in the direction of the warbler. It sings, and I see it through the leaves, head back, beak open, seeming to delight in the morning as much I delight in him. Too obscured for a photo, I just watch. Right now, I don’t need to capture him. I have him!

Smiling from my chest, I watch him hop about until he comes back into full view. The angle is not good, nor is the light, but I snap a couple photos I know will not be of high quality before he disappears again. This time, when he disappears, he does not return. I stay, circle the tree, listen, scan, but all is silent. All is still.

A bird flies over my shoulder displaying a flash of yellow. My handsome warbler? No, this bird is larger, his flight more labored—an eastern meadowlark. I follow, keeping my eyes on the slow, undulating flight until he lands in the top of a Leyland cypress at the edge of the property. I stop a hundred yards short and listen to his song as I scan for the best approach through the tall, wet grass. As I ponder, he turns, takes to wing, and is quickly out of sight.

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Distant Meadowlark Sings In the Cloud

I wander back towards the holly, listening for the magnolia warbler song, or any other unfamiliar voice to explore, but I hear only the regulars—a game of concentration I might be able to win. I could easily spend my morning with the usual suspects, but I have work to do, so I head back to the house. As I walk through the thinning cloud, I float on the memory of a moment shared with a little yellow and black and white bird who I will not put on a list, and who has ensured my day cannot get any better!

Here Am I!

A sign at the trailhead tells us how to get along. Cyclists, runners, horsemen and walkers share the trail that winds through my woods. I call the woods mine, because I am the only one who wanders in them, best I can tell. At least I have never encountered anyone else in them. Others use the trails through my woods. Some race through on two-wheeled machines. Others lope along on pack animals, never dirtying the soles of their own feet. A few jog through wearing their special go-fast shoes, hydration packs on their backs. Those folks need rules. In order to remain safe, get along, avoid collision, users of the trails through my woods must obey the signs. Not me. The rules do not apply to me, because I am not on the trail. I am in the woods.

I begin at the trailhead, but the first butterfly, birdsong, bloom, or memory of an old stump where a favorite fungus grows will quickly pull me into the woods. This morning, it is a purple iris that catches my eye. It has been a month or so since the smaller, native flag iris bloomed. I am not familiar with this one and wonder if it is introduced. I move from one to the next. Iris, deep and richly purple, have me lying on my side, waiting for the breeze to still. Photographing purple flowers can have unique challenges.

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Purple Iris

A birdsong keeps my ear busy as I photograph one flower and then another. Where are you? Here am I! Where are you? Here am I! Compelled to answer, I seek out the one calling. “I’m over here,” I say to the woods softly. The chosen lens for this walk is a bit long for flowers, but a bit short for birds. The red-eyed vireo poses perfectly on high branches, but 200 millimeters cannot bring him as close as I would like. His song has no trouble reaching me. Where are you? Here am I! Where are you? Here am I!

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Red-eyed vireo asking where am I from the canopy above.

A pair of cyclists buzz by from a few yards away, startling the vireo, and I set a course deeper in the woods. Evidence of last year’s heavy acorn crop blanketed the floor of the open woods with the kind of green that is only found in spring. Joining the young oaks were scattered sassafras trees with their odd mitten leaves. Though the showers of the past two days failed to water my garden, accompanying lightning added enough nitrogen to the air to electrify already brilliant young leaves. I stop by a log known for producing chicken of the woods, but find the cupboard bare. I will return.

Spring Tree
Sassafras, years before its roots will be ready for tea.
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A white oak, electric green, in its first spring.

Wild waist-high blueberry bushes are throughout my woods. Unlike the selectively-bred bushes on the farm, these show no sign of fruiting yet.  On the farm, they are already covered with flowers, and in the valley, the same bushes would have tiny, rock-hard berries by now. But in the woods, good old fashioned plant sex allows the randomness of genetics and the harshness of natural selection to determine that these bushes will fruit later. I suspect that many generations ago, blueberry bushes with early blooms lost them to April freezes, so that trait was not passed on. When these bushes do fruit, the yield will be high, and the berries much smaller, sweeter, and tastier than what I will harvest from my neat rows.

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Bosom Bush Bloom

Another bush—sweetshrub—is in bloom in my woods this morning. Old-timers remember the day when the reddish-purple flowers from the so-called “bosom bush” were crushed up and used as perfume. The vernacular name comes from the part of the body where the perfume was applied. I pick a bloom and crush it in my hands. It certainly smells better than anything you might buy in a store, and is a heck of a lot cheaper!

The ubiquitous screams of red-tailed hawks behind me, pull me away from thoughts of sweet-smelling antebellum breasts. A hundred yards through the woods, I find three hawks chasing low above the trees—diving, twisting, carrying on. I was not quick enough for photos and soon they rise, chattering on the wind, and depart.

Little Purple
Violets abound!

Before my mind can drift back to the bosom bush, more flowers catch my attention, and I kneel to look at a clump of little white flowers with a subtle purple tinge. Familiar as I am with these delicate blooms perched atop the slenderest of stalks, I do not know the species. That lack of information does not lessen my appreciation for their beauty, however, and I take several photographs. Beyond them, a violet keeps me on the ground until a tiger swallowtail brings me to my feet.

I follow the flutterby on a seemingly random path around the woods. Although she never lands long enough for me to photograph her, the journey is worth it. As she disappears into the treetops, I look down to see a white slant-line moth blended so well into azalea blooms, that I almost missed him. He poses for as long as I care to watch.

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White slant-line moth on azalea flower.

My woods are perfect for wandering. They are open and easy to traverse. The trees are young, but the forest is old. It has survived the gashes of mining and the horrors of clear-cutting. It has been dissected by roads, and patch-worked by development, yet it bustles with biodiversity.

Here I have sat beside a newborn fawn, discussing with him where to find mushrooms. I have gently held a just-hatched turkey while her momma watched nervously from a few yards away. I have seen the woods explode with orange when the chanterelles fruit, and discovered lion’s manes high in the trees. I have carefully encouraged copperheads safely away from trails and humans, and watched box turtles flirt. I have taken naps, gotten lost, and found myself.

People travel great distances to find adventure, excitement and beauty. They flock to national parks and forests hoping for escape, renewal, and a feeling of wildness. I, too, pursue those things on occasion. Every now and again, I need to experience the aloneness and vulnerability of grizzly country. Most days, though, all the wildness and magic I need is right here in my neighborhood. All I have to do is stay off the trail. Here, the woods are old, the trees are young, and on this day, all the flowers are purple. Where are you? Here am I!

A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

Beginning in the first days of this past winter, and on through to early spring, I was fortunate to have regular visits on the farm from American woodcock. They dominated my early mornings and late evenings, led me to crawling through tall grass, sitting in rain, listening in the dark, and showed up in my writing time and again. One of the woodcocks’ final appearances led to this little piece, published in the Spring 2016 issue of TasteBuds Magazine. It has not been archived on the website yet, but copies are available around the greater Chattanooga area. Pick up a copy, or visit the website to read other writers’ thoughts about food issues.

A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

Twenty years ago I stood on a back porch in northern Illinois watching the summer sun set over a sea of mature corn stretching to the horizon.

“This is what I love about farm country,” remarked my host–a middle-aged woman with deep corn farming roots. She took a deep breath, drank in the scene, and settled into a very satisfied smile.

The prudent response would have been to share her smile, perhaps nod in acknowledgment of her heartfelt comment. I was not prudent.

“I find it troubling…”

I was interrupted before I could finish what I was sure would be a brilliant and inspiring explanation of why a single-species, chemically-dependent landscape, devoid of biodiversity and functional ecosystem, could never bring a smile to my face.

Over the next few minutes I was lambasted with all the reasons why farming is important, how I wouldn’t have food on my table were it not for farms, how liberal hippies like me think we can have perfect peace and love, and have utopian dreams delivered on silver platters as the deer and antelope roam a golden plain at the end of a triple rainbow.

It was not one of my finer moments, and I deserved the scolding. The truth of the matter is that my friend and I were both right… and both wrong. We do need farms, and we can feed ourselves without denuding the landscape of biodiversity. We do need to control some pests, and we can do that with balance.

I blew an opportunity that evening to have a healthy conversation about what is good and right about her heritage, and how the future could be even better for all of us.

It is easy to see in retrospect that even if I had begun differently, my effort to convert a corporate GMO farmer to an organic grower of kale, kohlrabi, and heirloom tomatoes was a pipe dream, but we could have walked away from each other with new perspectives to think about. Instead, I walked away labeled (perhaps correctly) a delusional hippie, and have not seen that friend since.

That conversation is on my mind this evening as I leave the house, and walk out past the gardens to a maple tree on the edge of the north pasture. This landscape, as varied topographically as it is rich in biodiversity, couldn’t be more different from a corn field in Illinois. Straight ahead of me the land crowns to form the western quarter of the pasture. To my right, it rolls down into a drainage, pitches up slightly, then slopes steeply off to the eastern border. An ephemeral seep is enough to keep the drainage soggy for most of winter and spring. I don’t mow this part of the pasture as frequently as the rest, allowing rushes to mingle with wildflowers and grasses.

I scan the landscape briefly, but my focus tonight is on the crown just ahead of me, and I raise my camera to take a few test photos.

The wind has been gusting much of the day, and dark clouds are fast approaching from the south. I cozy up to the north side of the tree, hoping to find a lee from whatever rain may come. A small pine embraces the trunk of the maple, extending its arms around me as well, providing minimal camouflage and the temporary illusion of safety from the storm.

No sooner do I snap my test photos, than a few small raindrops tick on the brim of my nylon hat. I wrap the camera in a towel, put the rear lens caps on the binoculars, and settle in for a show I will attend regularly over the next several weeks.

Moments like these perfectly illustrate why I love living in farm country, and I suspect that what I am feeling is not dissimilar to what my Illinois friend feels in her special moments on the land. I know she loves the solitude and self-sufficiency, the feelings of independence and of doing something good for the world. She also probably finds comfort in the sound of a giant combine on the horizon bringing in the harvest.

Of course, my friend is a farmer, while living on the farm no more makes me a farmer than having a piano in the house makes me a musician, but I am fortunate to reside on this small hobby farm, and being here brings me a peace, a solitude, and a connection to the natural world that inspires my writing.

As I scan the landscape, wind gusts are growing in their intensity and I suspect tonight’s performance might be canceled, but it is pleasantly warm and I am dressed to handle a bit of precipitation. When the performance is not canceled due to weather, the near high ground is the most used theater, and I am committed to sitting it out until dark.

Just as I check the towel to make sure my camera is safe, the first actor takes the stage. The show is on.

Meep… Meep…

The call comes unexpectedly from my right, beyond the seep. I listen, waiting for the opening song to transition into the first dance.

Meep… Meep… Meep… Meep… silence…

During the pause, two more actors enter the theater, and more calls begin over my right shoulder near the gardens. In this theater I have never seen or heard more than one actor at a time and my spirit rises.

Meep, Meep, Meep, Meep…

I turn my head in the direction of the new voices, and two American woodcock take flight. On quick whistling wingbeats, the pair of stubby birds sprint south, one chasing the other over the house. Soon, they are out of sight and sound, and I look back to my first bird, who is still calling.

I check my watch and jot down the time in my journal. As I cap my pen, the hoarse, nasal voice surrenders to a soft, ghostly fluttering. The dance has begun. Recognizing my chance, I stand up and run to the apple tree by the gardens, where I pause to listen.

Overhead, a soft whistling swirls in broad circles. Wshha, wshha, wshha…

I step back from beneath the canopy of the apple tree and look to the darkening sky, but see nothing. The sounds fade until all I can hear is chorus frogs in the seep. I stay put, scanning the sky. The brief rain stops.

Far overhead, a gentle whisper returns. Rapidly it corkscrews towards me, gaining in speed and volume until the crescendoing whisper is a flutey warbling voice in front of me just beyond the rushes.

Through the apple boughs I watch intently, catching a blur of a bird descending quickly to the ground on the near side of the drainage 75 feet away.

The calling begins immediately.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

I stretch out prone on the damp grass and belly-crawl under the apple tree, then between two pines on the edge of the open space.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

He turns, sending out his beckon in all directions.

Meep, meep, meep, meep…

Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

As he spirals back into the sky, I crouch and hurry out into the rushes. The ground is unexpectedly dry, and I take a prone position, hidden from sight.

My spot proves perfect! He lands just outside the tall grasses on the other side of the drainage, and once again I am belly-crawling, feeling like a lion on the savanna creeping up on unsuspecting prey.

When I reach the edge of my cover, he is no more than fifteen feet away. His raspy calls are sharp now, biting through the heavy wind. Without a tripod, it is too dark for a photograph, but even in the retreating light, I can see him clearly through the binoculars – a short, plump bird with no visible neck, his head sitting on stout shoulders. A large black eye set in a buffy ring dominates his head. His breast is the color of my weathered Carhartt field coat, his back speckled with dark browns and light khakis. His most striking feature is a long, slender beak, easily twice as long as his head. With every raspy call, his rapier beak opens and closes like the jaws of needle-nose pliers.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

For a moment, I think back to northern Illinois where I first encountered woodcock performing their ritual in a forest preserve. I wonder if they once performed in what is now the sea of corn behind my friend’s house, and if she would find the same joy in this moment as I do.

I am lucky to have woodcock performances beginning as early as December and continuing through spring in Northwest Georgia. In Northern Illinois, the show is only booked in theaters for a couple of spring months, and I don’t imagine there are theaters in vast corn fields.

If I found myself back on that porch today, had the opportunity to begin that conversation anew, my response would be very different than when I was a starry-eyed young hippie. Today, I would begin by sharing with her how, long before there was corn there, on certain spring evenings, we might have stood right there and heard an odd raspy voice calling from out on the savanna… Meep. Meep. Meep.

From there, I might talk about the biodiversity and wildness that can coexist with corn farming, how the same land that produces vegetables and cattle, eggs and pork, can also attract woodpeckers, possums, and salamanders. I might talk about how sparrows and shrikes like fencerows, and how hawks and butterflies love open meadows. I might tell her about the small property I inhabit, where deer and gray fox appear nightly, and at least five species of frogs fill spring nights with a brilliant chorus.

Of course it wouldn’t be fair to compare the biodiversity of even the most intact Midwest savanna with the richness of the Cumberland Plateau, and certainly there is a place for corn farming, but must we sacrifice all biodiversity to have it? Can a corn farm not also have hedgerows and woodlots, prairie islands, free-flowing streams… in short, habitat and diversity?

Perhaps one day my Illinois friend and I will reunite and I can invite her to Georgia where, together, we can crawl through the tall grass to see woodcock dance in the fading light before retiring to the porch to listen to chorus frogs and spring peepers. If that does happen, I will turn to her and say, “This is what I love about farm country,” and she will see me take a deep breath, drink in the scene, and settle into a very satisfied smile.

The Left Wing of a Chickadee

There is much to love about the snow–tracks to follow across a clean landscape, the crisp cold that comes with the season, the romance of a day free from work to sip something hot and read a book… But it is the quiet that is most appealing to me. And there is no better time for quiet than early morning darkness. I miss these things when not on the farm but fortunately, this Saturday morning, I am on the farm!

I was thinking of these two things–quiet and darkness–at 6:00 this morning, as I awaited, ironically, first light that would not come for another hour. Some mornings I will set out before light, but not today. On this morning, I wanted light. After missing so much activity during the dark hours, I relish a fresh coat of snow to reveal the movements of deer, fox, possum, raccoon, and whomever else is making the rounds while I sleep.

When 7:00 came, and the light was just beginning to emerge, I turned on the radio to keep me company as I chose my layers for a chilly morning. Before long, I was back in bed, half dressed, and sitting up, listening. I should have known better than to trust NPR at that hour on a Saturday. The Living On Earth broadcast always finds a way to pique my interest, but this morning they seemed to be listening in on my very thoughts when they began a segment on darkness. And this as I watched the morning creep softly through the trees to the farm through my bedroom window.

Things were neither dark nor quiet when finally I set out around 8:00, first to the mailbox, then around the perimeter of the property. Overnight, a strong wind had swept in on the heels of the storm that blanketed us in snow, and frozen trees bowed and creaked under it’s force. Hands buried in the pockets of my down sweater, a cup of coffee and a pancake were sounding better and better, and I cut around the near side of the pond to shorten my route.

A handful of small birds fled to the shadows beneath the pussy willow where I had no chance of making their acquaintance. A less timid chickadee crossed my path, landing briefly in the maple tree, before moving on to the vineyard. As she took flight, another movement in the tree caught my eye. Clearly not a bird, but the size of a chickadee, something fluttered in the wind. My only thought was that a piece of plastic must have snagged on a twig as it made its way to the Pacific Ocean where, as I understand it, plastic bags choose to retire.

Exposing my hands to the cold, I lifted the camera to my eye for a closer look. I was right about three things: it was the size of a chickadee, it was snagged on a twig, and it was fluttering. It was not plastic. A chickadee had somehow managed to get a primary flight feather stuck between two small twigs and had bent the shaft nearly to the point of breaking. Wing outstretched, the little bird was struggling to free itself, and clearly nervous about the attention I was giving her.

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I snapped a couple of quick photos without taking the time to think about exposure or composition, then ran to the house for gloves and a ladder. With that, I should be able to reach a large limb below the chickadee, and from their, I should be able to free her. Not knowing the extend of damage to her wing, or whether or not she would be able to fly, I grabbed a second scarf to wrap her in, in case I needed to take her back to the house with me, then ran, ladder in hand, back to the maple.

As I approached, a chickadee took flight from a limb ten feet from the stuck bird. I wondered if this was a companion come back to check on her, but further investigation suggested that it might have been the stuck bird, herself, as there was no sign of bird or feather where she had been entrapped. Relieved, I returned the ladder and continued my walk.

DSC_0814The thermometer on the barn read 20 degrees, and snow was blowing in my face as I made my way along the creek. In the woods, cardinals stood out against a stark backdrop. A thrush flushed downstream and I tucked into the lee of a large poplar to wait for it to move again. My focus on the smaller bird, left me completely unaware of a much larger bird between us, and I startled when the red-shouldered hawk took off from the near bank of the creek and escaped past me by only a few feet. I tried to settle in and wait for the thrush to move, but the woods-bending wind swirling around the tree suggested I move on.

As I had been all along, I scanned the snow for tracks, but between the heavy wind and the lightness of the snow, whomever was about in the darkness had left no discernible evidence for me to follow, so I headed for the house and pancakes.

I suspect the snow will still be around tomorrow morning, and with any luck perhaps the wind will have moved on. If so, perhaps I will not turn on the radio, will get out a little earlier, and will enjoy some dark quiet Sunday morning. As for the rest of this morning, I plan on a cup of coffee, a pancake, and some feeder watching–keeping my eye out for a certain little chickadee with an odd left wing who will have no idea of my plan to save her.

Mysterious Southern Winter

Less than week ago, at 7:10 a.m. as the first light of the day was creeping onto the mountain, I laid on my back in the cold, wet stubble of a bush-hogged field on the north end of the property. Drawn there by a raspy, staccato voice from across the farm, I hurried, silently, crouching low from tree to tree until hidden behind the shiitake logs beneath the old apple tree. From there, the call was loud, and close. Meep, meep, meep… I waited.

When the hoarse, nasal call surrendered to a soft, ghostly fluttering, I ran to the cedar on the edge of the field and tucked myself in tight and listened. Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha… Rising in broad circles from the earth, the gentle whisper was almost lost in the sky, before diving rapidly, finishing the dance in a faster, flutelike rhythm. Watching intently for a glimpse, I caught sight of him just as he landed. Again, I waited.
He turned, sending out his beckon in all directions. Meep, meep, meep, meep…
Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

I sprinted fifty feet into the open and stopped, dropped to the ground and froze lying face up. The cold wet quickly wicked through cotton to skin, but I resisted shivering.

Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

The woodcock landed 15 feet to my right and began again…

*    *     *

This morning is different. The ground crunches underfoot, and limbs, coated in a thin, shiny varnish creek sharply under the diminutive weight of titmice eager to be first at the feeders.

I walk out to the woodcock field expecting nothing, and my expectations are met. At the cedar, everything is still and I do not tarry long. I pause to photograph the heavy ice coating the naked blueberry canes, but the light is not yet sufficient without a tripod.
Circling east, I wander and listen. A yellow-bellied sap sucker is calling from the lower meadow, her single fluid almost hawk-like notes pierce a thin fog. At my approach, she flies to a maple tree and begins to rap.

A menagerie of birds scatter from the feeders as I turn back to the house where the grits are cooking.

*    *     *

This is what I love about winter in North Georgia. Last week I heard bullfrogs, earlier this week, woodcock. Now, a few days later, the trees are coated with ice. The season is a mystery as likely to produce mushrooms as snow.

By this afternoon, the ice will be gone and tomorrow it will rain. Then, this weekend, I will rise early once more and listen. Aldo Leopold waited until April to experience the predictable, seasonal sky dance in Wisconsin. Perhaps there is a greater reward in the wait, but I like the thrill of knowing that even in January I can walk out my door at daybreak, lie down in a soggy field, and know that maybe I will be graced with the company of a woodcock, or maybe I will just end up wet and cold. Either way, it will be time well spent. And, either way, I will have grits waiting for me in the kitchen. I doubt Leopold had that.

Seeing Red in the River Gorge

On the north sides of the buildings snow persists from a weekend dusting, a fragile sheet of ice covers the pond, and the sun still lingers low as we pass by. The tilt is shifting, though, and these days of crisp, cool, clarity are numbered.

I relish these days when I am supposed to catch up on reading, finish the story I have been harboring two years running, and to wrap up unfinished business. Yet, I find myself sitting and staring at the crows gathering in the top of the persimmon tree, following the deer as they skirt the wood’s edge before not-too-cautiously crossing west by the beehive, heading for some important deer business, or wrapping myself in a scarf and wandering in the cool sun and pondering.

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Deer browsing near the grape vines.

To the east, the land rises. So also to the west. Sunrises and sets are quick and undramatic in my little bowl atop the mountain and come neither early nor late. This time of year, I wake before the sun is spun into sight, always hoping for the drama that never comes. The drama of my morning is in the voice of the little wren outside my window, though he does not always rise early. On this morning, it was the crows who first welcomed the day.

It would be easy to say I should be productive today. There is certainly a backlog of work, and I am well rested and healthy. But I resist the shoulds, and try to satisfy myself with the shalls.

And what I shall do will unfold as it does, without pressure or sense of need or obligation, and I will do my best to find peace in that.

That unfolding way does not mean a lack of productivity, or accomplishment, but simply that the productivity must be followed rather than pushed this time of year. For this time of year is also the time of adventure and exploration.

Friday past, when it was still warm, before the snow came, I went for a hike in the Tennessee River Gorge with Rick of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. We climbed through scree and boulder to a small pond seeping from limestone where something had preceded us, disturbing the shallow. We knelt at the marge, pondering the lack of tracks where the water was stirred and turbid. A bullfrog, hearing our voices, let us know that he was there, this pond was his. I suspect we would not hear him today, but I respect his vigilance and hope he found some warm mud. I want to hear him again in spring.

“Sedges have edges” we reminded ourselves, exploring the flora of the bullfrog world, before moving on.

On the edge of a rain-swollen bog, we wondered if wood ducks might be hiding through the trees, but all we saw was a pileated woodpecker in no mood for hiding.

Looking up at the industrious fellow in the tree top, I was reminded of another bird I have seen only once in the gorge. “Have you ever seen a cuckoo out here?” I asked.

“I’ve heard rain crows in the gorge,” he said. “Never seen one, though.”

My companion told the story of his grandmother who knew how to find catalpa worms by listening for the rain crows. I am sure this is true, but I’m not sure how necessary birds are for finding fish bait. I have heard catalpa worms chewing leaves from thirty feet away. They do a darn good job of revealing themselves.

However you find them, Rick’s grandmother says they are the best fish bait around because they are so tough. One worm lasts for a half-dozen fish or more. Tough as leather, they are. And you can freeze them for use year-round.

As my thoughts lingered for a moment on fishing, Rick’s remained with his grandmother. “She also taught me about the eyesore bird,” he said thoughtfully. Eyesore is an ironic name for the scarlet tanager. That a bird of such striking beauty and stark contrast could have such a name, piqued my interest.

Rick’s grandmother taught him that in the spring, when allergies get your eyes all excited, the way to alleviate the swelling and itching was to rub it with a feather of the eyesore bird. Excited about curing his seasonal allergy, Rick went into the woods and found one of the rich red birds with the pitch black wings and shot it. As you might imagine, Grandma was quick to scold her proud progeny, and to explain that the healing magic is only released when the feather is obtained respectfully. Rick’s action would only ensure more itch, more red, more swelling, and plenty to think about.

By his story, I was reminded of a tanager I found several years ago. A victim of a neighborhood cat, the fellow I held in my hand had lost most of his tail feathers and had a broken wing. Despite my best attempts to nurture him, Infection took the eyesore bird after a couple days.

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An Eyesore Bird in the Hand

At the time, I made no correlation between my intervention and the lack of spring allergies for the next several years. Had I known Rick’s grandmother, I might have rubbed the whole bird on my eyes when I had the chance.

As we conversed about the medicine of the red bird, another red medicine grabbed my attention. Fungi fruiting on a tree at edge of the flooded forest pulled me closer. I broke one off and showed it to Rick who wasn’t all that plussed until I dipped it in the water. In an instant, the dull finish more brown than red, exploded with a richness of color. I did not have grandmother stories to share about my medicine, but they have been used medicinally for thousands of years, so I stuck it in my pack for the hike down the stony escarpment.

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A Wet and Shiny Reishi
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One of Many Fairy Cups

Halfway down, a tree caught my eye. The mixed forest of the cumberland is a cornucopia of tree species, each with its own special niche and relationships. One of my favorites is the bat tree, and this was a grand example. We stopped for a few photos of the great shagbark hickory with her peeling skin that surely provide roosting haven for many nocturnal flyers. We will be back in the summer to test our theory that sunset will present waves of waking bats, crawling from the crevices of the bat tree to begin the night shift.

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Rick Posing By the Bat Tree

Just below the bat tree, bright little fairy cups glowed on the forest floor, and I promised myself to come up with a story about these magical-looking mushrooms. Who knows, while it is unlikely that I will ever be somebody’s grandmother, I might run across some young folk in need of stories about the magic of the forest.

Rick and I had a barbecue lunch then crossed the river to the other side of the gorge where we sat down with an old timer to hear stories of a long past moonshining career. But that is a story for another time.

I don’t know what I should be doing this morning, but I feel some things pulling me. I will do something adventurous…

Taxation Without Representation

     I do not own the eleven acre tract I inhabit. The tax burden of the land falls on someone else. I mow, prune and garden, repair pipes when they freeze and tractors when they break down. I am fortunate to call this little plot my home in exchange for my meager services.

There are others who make a trade for residence as well. Some make exchange with the land, like the deer who dine on apples in the fall and maintain narrow roads along two borders, the red-shouldered hawk who hunts the edge of the woods and sometimes visits the persimmon tree by the house, the black racer who shares the barn with the eastern phoebe who is no doubt nervous about her roommate. In the winter, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers and robins delight in the frost-softened fruit of the bradford pear trees along the driveway, while waxwings spar with a mockingbird for holly berries.

There are other residents who make their exchange with me. These, too, are mostly birds. For a few dollars a month, I provide a steady diet of sunflower and other seeds. For these snacks (which they would be just fine without), I receive the pleasure of their company. Titmice, chickadees, and a red-bellied woodpecker are regulars to the feeders, while juncos reliably dine below.  This morning a small flock of pine siskins fill the perches, a brown thrasher hops in and out of sight at the edge of the deck, white-throated and song sparrows are heard, and occasionally seen on the margins, and a pair of bluejays nervously hop about the canopy, eyeing the delights below.

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Pine siskins on the porch rail.

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Carolina wren investigating bird feeder.

    At night, a grey fox, a fat silvery possum, and two juvenile raccoons come around just as predictably as I toss venison bones and small food scraps from the deck.

None of these cohabitants hold deed to the land, and none of them seem interest in doing so. Not even the giant pileated whose rambunctious laughs would be inappropriate anywhere other than in one’s own home, or the family of crows who do not seem to possess an “inside voice” seem content squatting here and there.

Other than me, only one resident of the farm carries on as if he own the place. And, though neither of us are on the county tax records, he surely has a  more legitimate claim. If the inside of the house is my claim, the outer perimeter is most certainly that of the Carolina wren. He knows every crevice and cubby hole, every perch, every spider web, every hiding place, and exactly which stages best project his voice to which corners of the theater.

In the morning, just to make sure I haven’t slept in, a hemlock branch projects his voice through my bedroom window. Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now, Wake-up-now! he chides.

Early afternoon he lingers near the back door, calling to me from atop the galvanized cans that house the birdseed. Aware of the siskins voracity, he instructs me: Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds, Feed-the-birds! If the weather is warm, and the door open, he will sometimes fly in, lighting on the back of the bow-armed chair in the living room. From there, he has no doubt about the effective delivery of his demand.

Mid to late afternoon, the front porch is his performance hall. This is where he calls in the ladies to show off all his potential nest beds. The old rusty lantern hanging in the corner is a favorite. I wrapped barbed wire around it to mimic a nest and provide a platform which he seems quite fond of. He lights in the steel nest, his potential future mate before him on the porch rail or one of the rocking chairs. He sings first to her: Looky-here, Looky-here, Looky-here! Then through the large window he shows off to me: Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her, Look-at-her!

In the evening, he chooses one of several trees just north of the house and sings to all who would hear. No matter where I am on the property, I enjoy his final performance of the day. His call is more varied then, and less predictable, but usually he says something like, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heavenly, Heaven! or Hear-me-sing, Hear-me-sing, Hear-me! This is the time for celebration of all that is his place and life.

I envy the stout little bird in his handsome cinnamon coat, with the finely-checked tail and arching white eyestripe. His ownership of the farm, passed down for scores or perhaps hundreds of generations is challenged by none, and no tax burden accompanies his claim. His proclamations of ownership only serve to brighten the realm for all who would visit.

The wren and I are lucky to share this place–both blessed by ownership without deed, representation without taxation. I am made wealthier by his song, and perhaps in some small way, he is enriched by my audience.