Cranes on the Platte

A small red light flashed over my head, signaling one of our guides to tap me on the shoulder. “Time to put away the camera,” he said in a hushed voice. For a couple hours we had huddled quietly in a simple wooden structure roughly the size and shape of a school bus with open, square, paneless windows on three sides that let in a cold breeze. Greeting our ears through those windows, were the primordial bugles of tens of thousands of long-legged birds. The late conservationist Aldo Leopold described the sound of sandhill cranes as a combination of tinkling little bells, the baying of deep-throated hounds, and the far clear blasts of hunting horns, “a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shake the bog with its nearness,” but Leopold never saw this many cranes in the great marsh near his farm in Wisconsin. In the nineteen-forties Leopold estimated there to be fewer than 100 cranes in that whole state, while here on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska, innumerable birds spread out over hundreds of river miles.

Now, after decades of water diversion for agriculture has rendered the river overgrown with ash and cottonwood, it is no longer an inch deep, a mile wide, and perfect for roosting. Most of the river is no longer provides safe refuge for migrating cranes to spend their nights, but thanks to the Audubon Society’s management of a small section of the river prioritized for bird habitat, bird watchers enjoy the concentration of nearly a half-million cranes packed into fifty river miles. On either side of the river corridor, acres of corn and the occasional remnant of wet meadow provide food during the day within a short flight of safe roosting ground.

Sunset cranes 3

Standing three-and-a-half feet tall, dressed in drab gray feathers and wearing bright red crowns, sandhill cranes are nothing if not majestic, but in spite of our best efforts, they had evaded close photographing this evening. Even with the giant lens on my camera, they stayed far enough from our blind to allow for only large flock photos. Sunlight now faded, they are close, but my camera cannot gather enough light, and soon it will soon be time for us to go.

Before the light escaped, we witnessed flock after flock taking off from their feeding grounds on the horizon to form living black clouds against a thin strip of orange beneath a heavy gray sky. As they rose, each nebulous form undulated like a raucous, colorless aurora borealis, twisting and folding into itself across the sky until another cloud, lifting from another wet meadow or corn field, folded into it. These great clouds divide, string out along the river, and settle by the thousands onto sandbars and shallows. Shoulder to shoulder, they find safety from predators in their isolation from the shore. But on this evening, the shallows in front of our blind are some of the last to be inhabited, and now it is dark. Through binoculars, I see faded, ghostly images continuing the rich, dense chorus, and I chuckle at the contrast between our respectfully hushed whispers and their incessant, guttural squawking.

After warming my hands in my pockets for a few minutes, I put the cap back on my lens.

* * *

We are in the blind before sunrise on a piercingly cold morning. My gloves and scarf missed the flight west, and my face and hands skipped over cold, jumping quickly to numb.

Like the night before, a large majority of the birds were in the air while there was not yet enough light to make use of my camera, and as the sun finally crept onto the horizon over my right shoulder, I nervously checked the red light, hoping to get the go-ahead to shoot while there were still cranes in front of me. Until the light turned amber, my camera would remain off as thousands of cranes at a time lept into the air, flapped wings stretching six feet from tip to tip, and circled above the river. Some groups eased back down again, deciding that whatever threat had set them off—a far off eagle perhaps, or a coyote on the shore—was not sufficiently threatening to warrant relocation. Most disappeared, heading to their favorite dining spots where, over their brief stay on the Platte, they will increase their body weight by twenty percent to fuel their migration north to nesting grounds ranging from the Grand Tetons to the far reaches of Alaska and Siberia beyond.

Landing Crane 2

By the time I get the nod to begin shooting, I am unable to feel my shutter button, and my cheeks and mouth are too numb to speak, but I am undeterred, and focus my lens on a few hundred birds directly in front of my window. As the light grows, I am constantly monitoring ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop, adjusting to maintain the fastest shots possible. My goal is to stop birds in flight as they take off a couple at a time.

In a few weeks these birds will be ritually engaged in courtship dancing—jumping, flapping, spinning, and throwing sticks over their shoulders—but the season is still too early for that behavior, and I settle for cranes standing, taking off, flying, and landing.

Cranes in Flight 2-4

As the light grows I notice a few birds with splotchy iron-colored stains from last year’s breeding season. When it comes time for building this year’s nests, adult birds will cover as much of their plumage as they can reach with iron-rich mud, staining their feathers the reddish-tan color of an old baseball mitt. Leopold noted in his essay Marshland Elegy that early settlers called the cranes “red shitepokes” for this artificial coloring, but on this spring equinox, most of the birds are still a light milky-gray that does not catch the golden sunrise in quite the same way as they will after their wardrobe change.

Forty-five minutes prior to our scheduled departure, one of our guides whispers that if anyone wants to escape the cold, we can head back early. When fingers fail to respond to repeated requests to retrieve my lens cap from my pocket, the decision is made. As we made the quarter mile walk to hot cocoa, my face was frozen and numb, and I can’t be certain, but I think I was smiling.

Cranes in Flight 7-1

 

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.

DSC_0812

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.

A Finch, An Oil Lamp, and A Little Ice Road Truckin’

Five days after a near miss with ice and snow in Northwest Georgia, winter weather followed me across the country last week to the High Plains Snow Goose Fesitval. At least that’s what the folks in Lamar, CO told me as temperatures were forecast to drop precipitously, and the clear sky expected to become heavy with snow. Never mind the fact that I came from the east, and the impending blizzard from the west. As a visitor from afar, I felt obliged to accept the responsibility. And I didn’t feel too bad about it, reckoning that snow was appropriate for a festival celebrating Snow Geese, after all, but a weekend of birding would surely be tough in a blizzard.

Fortunately, the snow took its time reaching us, and my first morning in Lamar began with a clear sky and a very pleasant morning walk even if the flickers, juncos and downy woodpeckers that highlighted the outing could have been more easily seen from my kitchen window back on Lookout Mountain.

As the winds picked up and the skies darkened later in the day, I experienced a rather ironic high point in the weekend when a couple white-crowned sparrows, and a northern cardinal joined a small flock of juncos we were watching along a riparian zone on the edge of town.

All of these species are common in the Southeast, of course, but while the Coloradans in the group oohed over the lone female cardinal, we caught a brief, fleeting glance at a little songbird flashing yellow on its throat as it disappeared into a thicket. Juvenile dickcissel? I wondered. When the little fellow re-emerged and paused for a decent look, there was no mistaking that I was looking at a rather curious morph of a very regular visitor to nearly every bird feeder in the country. A male house finch, usually red around the cheeks and breast, sometimes verging on orange, had shown up looking quite dapper in bright yellow duds.

I later learned in an article on the website for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch that the yellow coloring is not that unusual in the Southwest and Hawaii where the carotenoids that cause the reddening is less present in available foods. In other words, the yellow variation is a normal coloration which every male house finch has the potential to exhibit if given the right diet. Fascinating… if you are into that sort of thing. I found the little guy so beautiful that I might have continued watching him had the wind not picked up, the sky darkened, and a light rain begun to fall. The edge of the storm was upon us.

Unfortunately I did not have my camera with me, but my recollection is of a bird with much bolder coloration than the one pictured on FeederWatch.org. Who would have thought I would fly all the way across the country to be wowed by a house finch? I was eager to see what the next day might bring.

* * *

The next morning I joined about twenty other birders for a half-day raptor watching outing that began with a leisurely and delicious breakfast at Triple T Steakhouse in Grenada, CO. After we were fed, we headed out to a flooded gravel pit along the Arkansas River, stopping along the way when our ever-attentive driver hit the brakes hard and pulled the bus over to the side of the road for us to watch what turned out to be a flock of a hundred or so snow goose decoys. They were so convincing from the bus that, as we pulled away, a gentleman behind me was zooming in on a photo he had taken to convince himself they weren’t alive. The single black leg attaching each one to the ground ended up convincing him. I am still not sure if the driver was in on the joke or not. Raptors were scarce at the gravel pit, but there were several species of ducks including a couple dozen ever-graceful northern pintails that flew in to join several hundred snow geese. I was particularly enamored with the handful of blue morph snow geese in the mix who retained the white head, but were otherwise similar in color (at least to my eye) to great blue herons.

Our driver made several more abrupt stops on our return trip to watch a handful of kestrels and redtails, three or four harriers, and one serenading western meadowlark for which I couldn’t resist opening the window, even in the cold, for a better listen.

* * *

The afternoon following the field trip, I met a group of volunteers to load in and set up for my evening performance. Set up is always a difficult part of a gig for me mentally, as I lay out the “ideal” conditions for the show, and then figure out how to make the best of what is almost always a less than perfect space, and this time was no different.

Can we get a black backdrop? Is this the best lighting you can come up with? I really don’t want to keep the house lights on… I’m sorry but one spotlight won’t do it. Do we have to have all these tables? The audience is too far from the stage! Can we rearrange the room? Why don’t we eat in the other room so we can set this room like a theater? This stage is nowhere near big enough; we can’t use it. Somebody get these green M&Ms out of my bowl!!!

Can you say “prima uomo?”

I always try to make it clear that while I hope for “ideal,” I don’t expect it, and I really am appreciative of whatever they can do for me, but at the same time I fear that I come across as a divo, and find myself apologizing after every request. (By the way, do the male forms of prima donna and diva adequately carry the connotations as the better known female forms? If I am to be a pain in the ass, I would at least like to wear a masculine label…)

Fortunately, the team on hand, under the direction of festival director Vince Gearhart could not have been more pleasant, agreeable and happy to acquiesce to my every request, completely rearranging the room twice to create a wonderful space for the show. In fact, Vince’s smile seemed to only broaden with every request I made, and soon I was back in my room rehearsing and resting up for the evening.

When I returned a couple hours before showtime, heavy snow was blowing and I worried that the audience might stay away. These folks, however, were hardy plains folks, and they turned out in spite of the weather for a delicious meal, and stuck around for my show which was going great until…

With five minutes remaining in a performance I was proud of, the house lights flickered, a bright light flashed through the window, and the lights went out. A dim emergency light and the two lamps on stage provided the only vision for the audience, and the final words of Aldo Leopold were delivered by a dim silhouette of a man.

Nevertheless, everybody remained seated and quiet as I finished my lines and turned around to blow out the lamps. The first one out, I approached the second lamp for the dramatic conclusion of the play. The extinguishing of the flames represents a finality, a resolution, a completion of Leopold’s ghost visiting his shack and learning his lesson.

I could hear the murmurs in what had been, for an hour, a pin-drop quiet audience. I paused, my back back to the audience, and considered the moment. This is when I usually begin to tear up as I extinguish the last flame and let go of the book my character has been clutching tightly for forty-five minutes. I would have to trust the audience. They had made it this far with me, even in the darkened house. I had to believe that they didn’t need that final dramatic act to seal the deal. I left the flame burning, and left the stage, disappearing into the darkness.

Arousing applause brought me back to the stage, but the Q&A was reduced to one long answer to one short question. Some folks headed straight for the door, but a line of people waited to purchase Sand County Almanacs, many of whom even took the time for me to sign them by lamp light. After most of the crowd was gone and I had gathered my things and donned my coat and hat, one last audience member requested an inscription. Vincent, who had been so helpful during setup, saw the scene, grabbed his camera, and snapped off a quick shot that well captured the spirit of the evening.

lamp light signing

The power never came back on, and conditions were near whiteout as I drove the mile back to the hotel in several inches of snow that was still blowing hard. Expecting a cold, dark night, I was relieved to see the lights of the hotel emerge through the white, and my night was warm even though “a February blizzard toss(ed) the trees outside.”

* * *

Our Sunday outing was cancelled due to the weather, and between a delightful four-and-a-half hour breakfast conversation with a core group of folks including festival organizers John Koshak and Vince, and an equally engaging dinner with some of the same folks, I spent a relaxing day at the hotel that included napping, television (my guilty hotel pleasure), and a long hot bath.

At 5:00 the next morning, I began the long drive back to the Colorado Springs airport for my journey home. The reverse trek on Thursday night had been entirely in the dark, the unmistakable smell of feedlots being the only clue to my surroundings along the way, and though I looked forward to at least a little light on the return, I began this trip an hour-and-a-half before sunrise in the same darkness.

A mere fifteen miles in, as I carefully navigated a road patch-worked with ice and snow, what might have been seen as an omen brought travel to a stop. A semi had slid through a turn, coming to rest with its cab off the road in a shallow ditch, and now a tow chain blocked the road in front of me. Twenty minutes later the big rig once again had all eighteen wheels on the road and was able to continue under its own steam. As a small line of pre-dawn traffic slowly made its way westward, a black-tailed jackrabbit who was certainly unaware of the omen watched from the sideline.

For the next four hours, there was no point it checking the speedometer as road conditions necessitated slowing, speeding, and slowing again but never allowed nearing the posted limit. Eventually I hit Pueblo where I looked forward to a snow-free and flowing Interstate 25 north for the final hour of my road journey, only to find my hopes dashed. The Interstate along the front range was covered in snow, and traffic crept at 30 miles per hour all the way to Colorado Springs where I found the road to the airport completely unplowed and untreated, slowing progress even further.

Fortunately, there was little traffic to COS and I snailed my way west with only the occasional spinning tire, and parked in a snow-filled rental return lot at a ghost-town of an airport. A couple hours later I was on a plane for Dallas, TX–a city under siege by an ice storm. Somehow, in spite of several delays and two reschedules, at 7:45 p.m. I cracked open a beer somewhere between Dallas and Charlotte and could smell home on the horizon.

It would be another four hours before the plane door opened in Chattanooga, and around 2:00 Tuesday morning I finally made it to bed. When I awoke six hours later, I looked out the window to see (you guessed it) snow on the ground. I think the good folks of Lamar might have been right. It is following me.

* * *

As grits simmer on the stove this morning, I am happy to be home with fond memories of the high plain. Here in the South we pride ourselves for our hospitality (bless our hearts) but I have to wonder if given the same conditions–heavy snow, power outage, a demanding visitor from afar–we would carry ourselves with the same genuine smiles as the folks in Lamar, CO where there is no sugar in the tea, no alcohol in the restaurants (at least the ones I visited), and an expectation of prolonged oppressive winter weather.

The inch of snow we complained about here will surely be gone tomorrow, but in Southeast Colorado folks will be greeted by another storm piling more snow on top of more snow, and I suspect folks will be smiling as they shovel their walks and plow their roads. And hopefully they will put out some seed for a little yellow house finch. With any luck, I will make it back some day.

Long-lasting Love Affairs

A bluejay squawked from the tree line, giving me pause before entering the barn. As I scanned the woods for flashes of blue and white, a pair of chickadees flitted past, landing in the vineyard. Further in the distance, a pileated woodpecker hammered away… I will pause almost any job to watch or listen to almost any bird, and I never regret the distractions or the lost work time.

Back on track, walked inside the barn where I opened and closed a toolbox drawer, startling a cat that had been hiding in the back room. We see each other around the farm frequently, and share a mutual dislike for one another. I do not know why the cat dislikes me. Perhaps he senses how I feel about him. It is not personal. I dislike all house cats. Inside, they trigger my allergies. Outside, they kill songbirds.

In fact, a recent Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study found free-ranging domestic cats to be the killers of 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, the majority of which are natives. And a National Geographic article last year called house cat “the greatest source of human-related bird mortality in the country.”

As the barn cat streaked past me and out the door I offered a toothless warning in the form of a hiss. As usual, he did not stop to converse.

The pruning shears I had been hunting in the barn remained AWOL, so during my afternoon farmers market run I stopped in the hardware store for new ones. On my way through the store I thought about the cat, and checked out the live traps. I have trapped cats before. It isn’t difficult. But once you have them, you have to do something with them. Neutering and releasing doesn’t solve the predation problem, and feral cats are not viable candidates for adoption. As I see it, that leaves two options: Let them live and continue their bird-killing ways… or not.

I left the traps, bought my shears, and headed home. The sun was setting and the western sky awash with bold pinkish orange when I topped the mountain. It was dusk when I stopped the truck in front of the house.

* * *

The truck door was still open and I was leaning back inside, reaching for the milk cooler, when a sound caught my attention. Leaving the task at hand, I turned around and looked to the sky. I hear a lot of calls on the farm, but this was not one of the usual suspects.

That single peent, heard from inside the truck, might not have been much to go on, but it was distinct. My immediate thought (be it a fleeting one) was common nighthawk, but never had I heard a nighthawk in Georgia while wearing a heavy wool coat.

A second call confirmed that this was something different, something on the ground… and close by. Best I could tell, it was coming from just beyond the apple trees across the driveway.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

Aldo Leopold would have noted the exact time, the interval, and the number of calls, but I was too excited to think about checking my watch or counting.

As the calls kept coming, my certainty grew. It Couldn’t it be anything else, I thought… But it’s February. And I’m in Georgia…

Meep… Meep… Meep…

I continued to listen, trying to convince myself that this was anything other than the obvious–a tiny raspy tenor calling out his single notes, one after another, turning his body to send out the message in all directions, to all possible mates.

A pause of perhaps a minute left me listening intently, but coming up empty. Then a new sound brought irrefutable confirmation. Softly whistling wings lifted a stout, nearly tailless body over the trees. There was no mistaking it. An American woodcock flew directly over my head, barely high enough to clear the house behind me followed by a lasting silence.

An American woodcock!

* * *

I have watched birds my entire life, and there is not a single species I do not enjoy. A few of them, I have fallen in love with. My first family of Harris’ hawks who I watched hunting together like a wolf pack in the Arizona desert stole my heart instantly. I met my first American dipper at the bottom of Grand Canyon and was mesmerized by this strange little songbird who bobbed about in the stream before diving like a loon after insects. A lone Lewis’ woodpecker in Central California who looked so unlike any woodpecker I had ever seen that the spot on the map where I met her is ingrained in my memory. The first sandhill crane I encountered was on the Snake River in Wyoming–two adults and a colt. I challenge anybody to spend a few minutes with such a family in the wild and not be smitten. Winter wrens in Redwood National Park, shrikes and burrowing owls in Arizona, northern harriers and loggerhead shrikes in Georgia, nighthawks and kinglets in Tennessee… So many love affairs, all of which have easily outlived the longest of my human romances…

But only one bird have I fallen in love with before ever laying eyes or ears on her.

I was in my late teens when I first read A Sand County Almanac and discovered Aldo Leopold’s American woodcock. The annual sky dance, predictable enough to set his watch by, captured my imagination such that when I finally saw the ritual for the first time ten years later, I was at first convinced that I had seen it before.

The courtship ritual of the male woodcock is quite the spectacle. These short-legged shorebirds of the forest call out their meeps (Leopold called them peents) spaced about every two seconds, then take off, spiraling into the sky, the twittering of the wings growing ever louder as the spirals tighten until the bird is out of sight. But his is not the end, as if shot out of the sky, the birds practically fall back to the same spot to begin the ritual once more.

According to Leopold, “The show begins on the first warm evening in April at exactly 6:50 p.m. The curtain goes up exactly one minute later each day until 1 June. This sliding scale is dictated by vanity, the dancer demanding a romantic light intensity of exactly 0.05 foot-candles. Do not be late, and sit quietly, lest he fly away in a huff.”

I have no idea of the foot-candles of light on the farm that evening, but I have a hard time not believing in the romantic motivations of the woodcock. And hearing that call so unexpectedly, seeing the usually elusive bird not only in these parts, but at my front door, caused my heart to beat little harder and a little faster, and a delighted smile to cross my face.

It also made me a little bit lonely. Not because I longed for romance as I listened to his call for a mate, but because I wanted somebody–anybody–to see and be as delighted as I was. I wanted somebody else to experience such a magical moment. But when I called a friend later that evening, and then another, I could hear clearly in their voices that, as happy as they were for me, had either of those friends been there with me, they would have appreciated it, but their hearts would not have fluttered. This moment was mine, and in the end I was pleased to have been alone, and to have a quiet house to which I could return for a glass of scotch and a place to write.

Last night’s bird was not my first Georgia woodcock. I saw one last year on the next ridge over, but that was a silent bird, deep in the woods, huddled and camouflaged in leaf litter, far from any trail or open space.

I had previously experienced The sky dance and the accompanying meeps in several states north of Georgia from Maryland to Minnesota, and because the timing of those experiences fell pretty much in line with Leopold’s schedule, I had always assumed that there and then, and only there and then, is when the woodcock dances. After all, It is a mating thing, and that means spring, right?

So, when I moved from the Midwest to the South, I let yet another avian love affair become a long distance one. As with dippers, Lewis’ woodpeckers, and Harris’ Hawks, I would remember them fondly… and move on.

* * *

With the excitement of the woodcock over way too soon, I turned to the internet for some answers, and found a US Forest Service study stating that “Male American woodcocks begin displaying on wintering grounds sometimes as early as December when weather is warm, and continue displaying during spring migration and upon arrival on breeding grounds.”

I also found out that there are overlapping migrations and here, in Northwest Georgia, I am in the overlap where we can get them coming, going, or in some cases, hanging around year round.

But as is so often the case, this silver lining had a touch of gray. That USFS study also corroborated what I  learned from National Geographic: A major predator of woodcocks, whose populations are declining in much of their habitat, is house cats.

This morning, on my walk to the vineyard I was thinking about the numbers: 1.3–4.0 billion birds annually, when I ran across several tufts of bluejay feathers just outside the greenhouse. There was no proof, but the story was easy to guess.

This evening I sat on the porch from sunset until dark and listened, but my woodcock did not return.

Tomorrow I will do some more work in the vineyard and once again I will be ready shortly after sunset to listen from the porch.

Without proof, I have no way of guessing if my woodcock was simply passing through, if he has a peenting ground he prefers to mine, or if he met an untimely demise.

Of course my hope is that he is off peenting on another stage, to another audience, and that one of these evenings he might drop back in for a visit. In the mean time, I will do my part to make the theater in the orchard as safe as possible for his return, and a little safer for the bluejays, too.

You can see the woodcock dancing and peenting, then hear it’s whistling flight as it takes off in this youtube video by Lang Elliott.

 

Sunday Morning Procrastination

Winter is setting in on the little farm in Northwest Georgia where I serve as caretaker for 13 overly-groomed and controlled acres, and with it cooler temps and rain are producing greens and mushrooms enough to provide food for me, barter for neighbors’ eggs, and gifts for city-bound friends more reliant on grocers and furnaces than I.

From the kitchen window this morning I look east across a closely-mowed field where, weeks ago, the edge of the woods veiled its inner machinations but now, for a brief while, the curtain has dropped and a sliver of the forest world is revealed. Deer follow their well-worn paths while crows gather in the canopy and shout their disdain for loss of cover. When my timing is lucky enough, I glimpse a sharp-shinned hawk knifing around and through the trees after a northern flicker or unsuspecting bluejay. Perhaps the shouting of the crows is a warning to their corvid cousin.

There is something comforting in the nakedness of this season.

It is warm enough in this tired old farmhouse whose only heat is a small propane burner in the living room keeping that space and the adjacent kitchen pleasant, but providing little for the back half of my home where piled blankets will suffice as fall turns to winter and even in Georgia the mercury will proclaim single digits soon enough.

I am sitting on the couch this morning where a thick, hot cup of coffee perfectly compliments the thin air and swirling winds outside. It is not cold today–forty-five degrees at last check–but as long as I stay inside and in the north end of the house, my imagination allows the angle of sunlight and level of mercury to be a little lower, my relative warmth that much greater, my coffee that much more comforting.

The season brings new chores on the farm–grape vines long neglected need rescue from poplar, sweetgum, blackberry, and honeysuckle; the south “forty” is ready for bush-hogging; and several large burn piles await their fate. But I do not work outside today.

That this particular day of rest is a Sunday is coincidental. I do not, nor do the natural cycles that guide me, honor such a fixed and arbitrary allowance. Today could just as easily be a Thursday, a religious holiday, or the anniversary of a military battle (which it happens to be). For me, the December calendar marks but one day of significance, and that arrives in two weeks when the darkness of the solstice arrives and we once again begin looking toward spring. To mark that occasion, I will tell a story to a handful of people gathered to mark the occasion. But today I am sitting on the couch with my coffee while a winter flock of mixed blackbirds moves through the yard after grass seeds, some of them lucky enough to stumble upon tiny cracklins I scattered there last week after rendering a month’s worth of lard.

It is an equitable exchange between the blackbirds and me, though they are not aware of any commerce taking place. They receive treasured fat for winter and I am allowed a close view of their ranks among whom I note redwings, brewers, cowbirds, grackles, and starlings who although are not blackbirds, are black birds and not discriminated against by their brethren, none of whom is aware of any of the labels and distinctions I apply to them.

Through the back door a dry, brown, spindly fern sits in a hanging basket. There is a second one in the same state of death across the porch and out of my sight. Perhaps, tomorrow, I will gather those and the half-dozen others around the cabin I keep an eye on, and layer them in the compost where they will mix with coffee grounds, egg shells, rotting apples, sweetgum leaves, and whatever other garden trimmings and kitchen scraps lucky enough to be chosen as building blocks. This is a season of building, and the right blocks, layered, managed, and maintained, will provide fertile soil for another season of nourishment from the garden.

Here, in the living room, more building blocks serve my ends–books, notes, and recordings are piled around me on the couch and in front of me on the coffee table. These are the sources for a story I have been pondering for six or seven years and finally began building this fall–an appropriate season for just this story. As the last of the chestnuts fell to the floors of forests and lawns in the region, I began writing about the blight that wiped the once-dominant species from the the ridges and valleys of the Cumberland, and the mountains and hollows of Appalachia. Though I do not yet know the shape of the product to come, it is, like all stories, one of relationships. People and mountains. People and livestock. People and food. People and forests. People and survival.

But unlike building compost, or houses, or machines, I do not know what the final product will be. I begin with an idea, a general direction, but I have neither blueprint, nor even compass for my journey, only an idea. Like when I threw the cracklins to the lawn I had an idea that they were better there than in the compost or landfill not knowing that it would be blackbirds and black birds who found them and paid for them so generously, I am spreading pieces around the living room, translating them to paper, shuffling them around, and waiting for a story to emerge. The blackbirds could have just as easily been unnoticed ants scurrying their prizes below ground to store for future use, or nibbled in the dark by mice who were then exposed to the screech owls I heard calling a week ago.

My rambling distraction from story building has stretched to a thousand words… now, so perhaps it is time to get back to the work currently being avoided. Along with my construction project, I have letters to write and gifts to package for the mail–rewards for the generous supporters of a fundraising campaign that ended nearly three months ago. Unlike the ants, mice and birds for whom procrastination would mean certain death, it is a luxury I often afford myself, and one whose time provides the opportunity for ideas to ferment, but it is also one which, if allowed too much time, can erode the very foundation of my work.

So… enough bird-watching and pontificating, enough dreaming. It is time to write.

But, first, just one more cup of that hot, comforting coffee…

The Hermit and The Thrush

He doesn’t show up in the yard all that often, but I have a soft spot for the little brown thrush with the spotted breast. He lights on a low limb outside the window, never for very long, then disappears. Brown thrashers, eastern towhees, and song sparrows all like the leaf litter I leave in the yard for them, but the little hermit thrush pays only a short visit, has his look about, then retreats back to the forest. A hermit, indeed.

A couple years ago, I sold a house in Chattanooga, moved short term to a friend’s farm, then on to a small rented cabin in the woods for a year, before returning to the edge of town. Upon leaving I announced my intention to begin a process of hermitification.

“That’s not a word,” certain friends would say.

“But you understand it’s meaning?”

Whether they believed it the best thing for me, or even understood my true intentions, most understood at least the meaning of the word on it’s face. I wished to get out and away. Maybe for a little while, maybe for a long while. I did not intend to disappear, rather to have a place where I could hide out when I didn’t care to be surrounded by people–something I find myself desiring more and more these days. Turns out, just under two years from my departure, I was back.

Now I sit in the flighty warmth of a drafty old house on the edge town and watch a solo bird come for a brief, silent visit, and return. And I envy him.

Birds have neither leases, nor mortgages, and no loitering or vagrancy laws prevent them from going where they will, when they will. They can be hermits like my little thrush, coming and going, peering in on the city dwellers, saying hello, even staying for a while with nothing preventing them from retreating to their hideout at a given moment.

I read that in some Scandinavian countries, laws permit free roaming for people. Hikers, travelers, even hermits who wish, cannot be prevented from crossing through any property regardless of ownership.

On the flip side, in Arizona even the waterways can be owned, and trespass forbidden.
Because those laws do not apply to birds, hermit thrushes live in parts of Arizona year round, while there have never been documented sighting in Scandinavian countries. Rare visits to the Celtic coast of the southwest tip of England are as close as they have come. Perhaps they did not find the leaf litter on the forest floors of Cornwall to their liking, and turned back.

It is not so much the ability to trespass or loiter without worry of conviction that piques my envy, though. Rather, I appreciate their having no need for the aforementioned leases and mortgages. They can stay where they will, for as long as they wish, for any reason or no reason at all, without binding contracts. And if they choose a new location, it matters not who the owner is or if they have interest in tenants. If the habitat suits, they can stay.
And wherever they go, there are plenty like myself who take pleasure in their presence.

Never have I heard anyone curse the hermit thrush for messing with the careful arrangement of his leaf litter, or straining the lower limbs of his redbud.

I don’t know why the hermit comes to my window. I have never seen him feeding on the holly berries with his cousin the robin. Neither have I spied him competing with waxwings for neighborhood mulberries. Perhaps he slips in low and unseen, slipping back out before the tenacious mockingbirds have a chance to scold and drive him away.

Maybe he just drops by to see how the moored folk spend their time, to remind him of his own freedom, the glories of his hermitification.

Or, perhaps he stops by to show me what I might have, were I willing to make the sacrifice.
If that is the case, through the old windows of this rented house, he might see me pour a glass of wine, turn up the thermostat, and sit down at the piano to make music nowhere near as beautiful as his own,. He might, then, begin to question the value of his freedom, but I doubt it.

I think the hermit thrush is likely just as happy in his place, as I am in mine. Hopefully, we can both continue to visit the other on occasion, even if we aren’t suited to stay. That is, if my music doesn’t drive him off for good.

Here Comes the Goony Bird, and I say… It’s Alright!

The boat mustn’t have been more than sixteen feet long but from my perch in the bow, my father who sat on the rear bench, his right hand on the steering arm of the fat green Johnson Outboard with the Cadillac-like wings, could not have been farther away. The drone of the motor made conversation at anything less than a shout impossible and kept my morning song to myself.

The song, always the same, repeated over and over as the fiberglass tri-hull slid smoothly through the epidermis of the until now unspoiled morning water.

Little darlin’ it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. Little darlin’ it feels like years since it’s been clear…

The air was still. A scattered mist hanging low and flat curled away behind us as we disrupted the calm. Pockets of warm air, unseen, seemingly random and without explanation, fleeted too quickly. My only harbor against the chill between, a heavy flannel buttoned to the neck. Tucked beneath my thigh, a narrow brimmed fishing hat chosen to look like the one my grandfather wore was of no help. My ears were cold.

Rounding the bend towards the Lee Pike Bridge a first glimpse of hope splintered through pines.

Here comes the sun, doo-dum-doo-doo. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s alright…

Daddy eased back on the throttle and angled the boat towards the shore. I stopped singing and looked back at him. “Look,” he said. “A goony bird!” He was pointing ahead where a snag had fallen into the water. Up the log and almost hidden by shoreline vegetation, the goony bird was in charge like the turtles who were sure to take over the next shift in their own midday sun worship. Like a turtle on alert, the goony bird’s head was pulled in close to his shoulders, nearly belying the longish neck folded beneath. A slice of the morning sun, generously released by the pines (for this very purpose I believe), highlighted bright yellow legs.

As we glided too close for ease, the neck appeared and the goony leaned forward, lifted its wings and awkwardly lifted itself away from the shore with strong stiff beats and banked away from us. I smiled at Daddy. He smiled back.

“Let’s troll for a while.”

“Okay.”

The motor idled with just enough fuel to keep it running—a little faster than an ideal trolling speed, but the best it had to offer. I flipped a roostertail behind us, closed the bale on my reel and hooked the six-pound line with my finger. The spinner engaged and the rod bent as if under the load of a fish. Daddy cast a balsa minnow out the other side of the boat and we followed the lake’s marge around the contours of the land. Somewhere beneath us under fifteen feet of water the bank of Possum Creek, buried for thirty years by Chickamauga Dam, made the same shape.

“Did you see the crane back there?”

“Yeah,” I answered, smiling.

“I don’t know why they keep flying ahead of us. You’d think they would make one flight around us and land back where they were instead of flying forward a little bit, letting us catch up, then doing it again, and again.”

“And again, and again, and again.”

“They must be related to the goony bird.”

“Yeah, they’re goony alright.”

“You’re goony.”

“I guess I am.”

Countless were the mornings that began with a near-dawn tap on the shoulder, a quick quiet dress so as to not wake the rest of the family who would likely still be in bed upon our return a couple hours later.

Just Daddy and me on the lake we called a creek that would team with ski boats shortly after breakfast, but which for the precious time that bridged first light and first meal of the day, was ours.

It would be a few years before I would paddle a canoe with binoculars and bird guide on the same water, re-identifying the goony and the crane as green-backed and blue herons and feel pity on my father for his lack of knowledge.

But now, as I look through the back window of the log home lived in by Nina Leopold Bradley for thirty-plus years, and browse Nina’s meticulously kept phenological records of everything that bloomed, crawled, flew or otherwise resided in her yard on the edge of the prairie, I find myself slightly chilled by scientific Latin and field guide perfection, and longing for the days of goony birds and cranes.

There is great purpose and affect in these records—indications of changes over time reflecting results of climate change, habitat destruction or degradation, over-hunting, predator extirpation, and the introduction of invasive species. Records like these give proof and ammunition to scientists looking for answers and solutions. Without them, who knows what countless species might be lost and habitats destroyed.

But for the romantic, the artist, the impassioned observer who might not know a white-throated sparrow from a great egret, but for whom a morning call of “oh-sweet, Canada-Canada-Canada,” the evening aggregations of great long-legged, brilliantly bright birds flying to their roosts, and the early spring blooming of the three-leafed, three-petal blood-red flower inspire poetry and song, eases stress, and beckons as powerfully as to any Darwin, Latin terms and proper names would only sour.

Back in the days of fishing Possum Creek with Daddy, he had a habit when faced with uncertainty of saying “I’m just going to do something, even if it is wrong.” This sentiment frustrated a young boy trying to follow the tenets of his grandfather’s religion that left little room for wrong steps, much like the records of the biologist leave no space for incorrect identification.

I open up Nina’s once impeccable journal, now kept haphazardly since her death a few months ago, and begin a list of the birds I see: cardinals, downy woodpeckers, purple finches, goldfinches, titmice and blue jays at feeders, nuthatches, juncos, and white-throated sparrows gleaning beneath, a pileated woodpecker and waxwings on the edge of the woods, Canada geese and sandhill cranes flying overhead, and in the yard robins and… a little sparrow-looking bird with some chestnut on either side of the crown and a dark patch behind the eye. I want to make a guess, to write something down. Rufous-crowned sparrow perhaps? Seems I remember a sparrow by that name in Arizona. I look through the house for a field guide with no luck.

I hold my pen, staring at the page, then at the yard where the little bird was browsing seeds at the edge of the prairie a few moments ago. It is gone and I try to remember—clear breasted or streaked? Was there an eye streak or a patch? Wing bars? It must have been a rufous-crown, I think, looking back to the page.

Rising from my seat at the window, I walk to my bag on the couch, retrieve my personal journal, and sit down to write. October 13, 2011, Baraboo, Wisconsin, Nina’s house—entry number one: rufous-headed fluff bird. Record complete, I walk outside, scattering birds in all directions and head across the prairie towards the pond in search of the elusive goony… and I sing.

Little Darling. I feel the ice is slowly melting. Little Darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear. Hear comes the sun. Here comes the sun, and I say… It’s all right.

Squirrels: Rodents… or Role Models?

It is January and only four bird feeders hang in my small urban yard, down from the six of spring and summer. Flanking the house to the north and south and visible to office and dining room windows, tube feeders filled with sunflower seeds attract house finches, Carolina chickadees, an occasional pine siskin and a plethora of introduced European house sparrows. Sharing the dining room windows on the sunnier side of the property, a sock filled with thistle seeds invites goldfinches and house finches. In the back yard, hanging beneath a young hackberry tree, a suet feeder appeals mostly to mockingbirds, while the hoped-for woodpeckers—downy, hairy and red-bellied, along with their cousins the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, stick to the meals nature provides beneath the bark of the larger trees. Around the backyard, Carolina wrens find insects in leaf litter while ruby-crowned kinglets hunt bugs in the trees; song sparrows, white-throated sparrows and northern cardinals forage for seeds; and doves, both mourning and turtle, find scraps wherever they are able, spending much of their days roosting in the higher branches unbothered by the woodpeckers tapping around them. The occasional red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks visit the yard–red tails for the squirrels, “Coops,” for the concentration of songbirds around the feeders. Dove in talons, they often dine from the same limbs preferred by their prey.

Resting on the table along with two bird guides and a journal, my binoculars sit ready to distract me from chores, meals, bathing, work…other distractions. It is a nervously flitting kinglet which pulls me away from the dishes this morning. It’s size and activity make it readily identifiable without glasses, but I want a closer look. The male of the species sports a brilliant ruby crown which is invisible from most angles, but radiates more brilliantly than a hummingbird’s throat when the angle is right. This one was too quick for me, but before I set down the binoculars, another movement in the yard catches my attention.

There are always squirrels around my property. They glean leftovers beneath the bird feeders and find occasional snacks in the compost pile. Always nervous, they rarely stop moving. Even when feeding, their tails flick and their heads cock one way then the other as they scan the sky for hawks. But this morning, the two squirrels in the corner of the yard were not thinking about predators. Gently, they circled one another, paused to examine each other’s reproductive parts then faced again—one circling, then the other. They were slow, deliberate, and gentle as they prepared for the predictable. When ready, the male carefully mounted his mate. I expected chattering and proverbial bunny-like actions—quick, staccato, brief. Instead, he eased himself into position, embraced his partner, pressed himself against her, rotated his hips inward and held himself there. For ten or fifteen seconds (a long tome for rodents, I suspect) they kept their position. Business complete, he dismounted her just as gently as he had mounted then she turned to face him. There was a moment of grooming around the necks and faces of each other then, together, they scurried around the tree and disappeared.

Although I see squirrels when I watch the birds, I have never spent much time watching them. They’re rodents. If given the chance, they will decimate a bird feeder, chew through wiring or make a mess of an attic with their nest and keep homeowners awake at night. I have always categorized them, along with the feral cats in the neighborhood, as hawk food. Having now seen them in such a moment of intimacy, however—slow dancing through their reproductive ritual rather than doing the jitterbug, him engaging in tender foreplay instead of running her down and pinning her to a limb, the two of them taking a moment to just be together afterward—I had to rethink. Perhaps these little critters with their luxurious tails, and light chestnut patches on their speckled grey flanks deserve a little more respect.

Mine is an urban neighborhood and watching the squirrels this morning reminded me of the many undereducated young men wandering the streets and alleys here who father many children from as many different women–wearing the number of children they have as a badge of honor. A majority of the children on some streets have fathers in jail and more children are raised by grandparents than by parents. Of the half-dozen little boys who visit my porch for stories and play football in my yard, not one has a father at home, four are raised  by grandparents and at least two have fathers in prison.

I don’t know if there is a valid comparison between these men and the squirrel I watched this morning. I don’t know if the rodent couple in my tree will be monogamous. I don’t know if he will be a good father, provide for his offspring, remain true to his mate, or if she will have many partners. Perhaps he is already impregnating another. Maybe he will be gorging at the compost while several females tend to their nests alone. I suppose I could study them and find the truth, but I would rather take my observation of gentle, tender behavior and extrapolate. I would rather run with an anthropomorphic assessment of a wild moment and believe that squirrels are somehow honorable and moral, caring, nurturing and loving. I want to believe that we can look anywhere in nature, even to the squirrels, for an example of how we as humans ought to interact.

Of course I know better than this. What about the infamous black widow who devours her mate or the parrots in Australia I saw recently on PBS who fly miles upon miles to mate with as many partners as possible or the leghorn rooster who dominates the yard and lords over his hens?

I have been warned of the dangers of anthropomorphism but I am a romantic, and I am also a big fan of nature and all her processes. Any day now I am certain to see one of those red-tailed hawks in my yard, wings guarding a meal of freshly-killed squirrel and I know that her dinner might very well be one of the lovers I watched this morning. At that moment I will have a choice. I can either cling to my romanticism and mourn the loss of a good father, or I can be amazed by the prowess of the predator. Most  likely, I will not put much thought into it. As I run for the binoculars to get a better look, I will pump my fist like Tiger Woods after an eagle putt and root for the hawk.

After this morning’s observations I will probably pay a little bit more attention to the squirrels from now on as I feed the songbirds that in turn feed the accipiters, but I will not avoid anthropomorphizing when I do. I will, however, look for the lessons to be found as I apply human traits to the animals–appreciating both the lovemaking of squirrels and the hunting prowess of hawks;  and I will continue to agonize over the situation among so many young people in the neighborhood, realizing that whatever lessons might abound in nature, they probably won’t notice the squirrels and, if they did, would be unlikely to learn anything from them about parenting and respect. Those, I’m afraid, are values we humans must find a way to teach our own children…by our own examples.

For the Birds

It’s 7:55 a.m. and I’ve been staring at my computer screen for nearly an hour.  Somewhere close by, outside my window, there’s a Carolina wren calling.  Twice, I stepped out on the porch to see, but it hushed as soon as I opened the door and I couldn’t find it.  Each time, as soon as I sat back down, it called again.  I’ve been seeing and hearing them a lot lately, but usually from midday to late afternoon – not at first light.  They talk a lot this time of year, but I don’t hear them singing.  They only repeat a single, harsh, mono-syllabic, grunt, as if they just learned their first word and want to practice it, or maybe they just want to let each other know they’re still there, and haven’t been eaten by a cat or anything.  Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  It doesn’t sound particularly friendly, but they are polite.  One calls, then another.  They rarely talk over each other.  I could learn a lesson in manners from them.

Nearly an hour ago, a cardinal filled the thin morning air with a rich, eager call.  Peterson calls them northern cardinals and describes their call as What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer! But I’m certain these are southern birds.  No northern bird would pronounce “cheer” with two  syllables like these.  It’s more like, What-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er! 

Yesterday, for the first time in several weeks, I saw a pair of Turtle Doves on my street.  Not since November 7th, have I seen two turtle doves anywhere in my neighborhood.  That was the day I found the pile of feathers just north of my front porch – right outside my office window.  Before that, the pair made  daily appearances.  They would land on the porch rail, fly over to the fence between my yard and Miss Lucy’s property, then on to Miss Lucy’s tree and finally, to the bird bath.  After a drink, they would stop one more time on my porch rail before flying south to spend most of their day down on 19th street either in the vacant lot or on one of the telephone lines that cross Mitchell.

Immediately after the murder, I didn’t see either bird for several days.  Then, one morning, I heard the soft, telltale call.  Hoo-hroo, hoo-hrooo.  I ran to the porch to see a single bird flying to a telephone pole two doors down from me.  A single bird.  I had never seen a turtle dove alone before.  They are always in pairs.  I had to fight back the anger I felt toward the cat in order to fully feel sorrow for the dove.  Anger is powerful that way, and as a result, I think that we humans sometimes miss out on the depth and richness of sorrow – a beautiful emotion when anger isn’t drowning it out. 

It’s strange but even now, several weeks later and after he has found a new partner, I still get that heavy feeling in my chest when I think about him out there alone.  And I still get a little angry when I see the black and white cat I pegged for the deed.

I have referred to the lone turtle dove as “he” ever since the murder, but of course I don’t know what sex it is.  Male and Female turtle doves look identical.  I tried calling it “she” but it just didn’t feel right.  I’m sure Freud or Robert Bly could explain why I’m that way.  Of course they would probably also have something to say about my thoughts on anger and sorrow. 

Yesterday there was a hairy woodpecker across the street in one of the big, old trees on the alley.  I wish I could plant big, old trees in my yard to draw the woodpeckers over here.  I talked to the folks at the nursery but they don’t sell “big, old trees.”  I told them that they should.  I think there would be a market for them.

The northern mockingbirds are singing now.  I love their varied, melodic songs and having almost never seen them in Chicago, always associated them with the south and home.  Given my associations with them, I would love to cast them as southerners too, but I don’t really have a good argument for changing their name – definitely not as solid an argument as for the cardinal.  In fact, I could more easily argue the contrary.  They certainly don’t exhibit good southern manners – always making fun of the other birds, chasing after the crows, talking out of turn.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing northerners.  I’m just drawing a contrast between acceptable southern behavior and the behavior of mockingbirds.  That’s all.  Some of the best mannered people I know are northerners.  Linda O’Callahan, for instance and Gail Permenter.  Lovely, northern women with delightful manners… 

There are three empty lots across the street from me.  All three are owned by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises and all are for sale.  Yesterday, men with chainsaws and a chipper cut down nearly every tree, bush, and hedge on all three properties, reduced them to chips and drove away with the remains.  The sparrows loved the hedges and the grackles and starlings filled the trees.  Mockingbirds and cardinals frequented the bushes.  If I were building a house on one of those lots, I would want the habitat.  I’m relieved that they at least left the two biggest, oldest trees.  The new property owners will be able to plant bushes, but not big, old trees.

The wrens are calling again. Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  I wish they would say something else.  When they want to, they are capable of singing a beautiful song. I think they might be sad about the missing trees.  Or, perhaps they’re mourning murdered neighbors. Or, maybe all they’re saying is “Hey! Hey!Hey! Hey! Hey!”