Feast of Fogamar

Fogamar, “of wind and abundance,” Old Irish for this season we call autumn. It’s the perfect word for our annual shift from daylong predictable sunlight to those interesting grays and shifting breezes, and the occasional convergence zone with its furious rains and towering charcoal cumuli.

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

When we first met our new home a few months ago, the air was lilac-laden, dizzying in its sweetness. The blooms were fading by the time we moved in at the beginning of August, and by a couple of weeks ago the tall shrubs were looking pretty bedraggled, with shriveled brown seedheads sticking above the brown-edged green leaves.

But oh, they are beloved by the birds. Continue reading

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Summer’s Secret Stories

As I mentioned last time, it’s been a hard season for forest babies: no eaglet, no owlet, no bushtit-lets. After realizing this wouldn’t be the year for any of them, it took a while to recalibrate my attention toward the less conspicuous developments of spring nesting, those subtle clues to smaller dramas. On closer inspection, the Black-capped Chickadee hopping through the hawthornes turned out to be gleaning nutritious protein for its children, hidden somewhere in nearby shrubbery but peeping insistently for their forthcoming meal.

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Continue reading

The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough. Continue reading

A Million Bird Miles: International Migratory Bird Day

(reposted with slight modifications)

“Congratulations – it’s a FOY!”

Janeanne, Mark, and I were peering last week through binoculars at a fuzzy blob on the top of a Western Hemlock on the other side of the little clearing. Janeanne, a far better spotter and diagnoser than I, called it: a Western Tanager. Since it was the first tanager any of us had seen this year, that made it a FOY (first of year), always very exciting.

Tanagers are lovely little birds, the males glowing yellow with an incandescent reddish head. So you’d think in our fifty-shades-of-green Pacific Northwest forest, they’d be easy to spot. But no: it turns out that these beautiful feather-people love to hang out in Pacific Madrones, whose peeling bark is a translucent brown-orange and whose aging leaves turn yellow and then deep orange. Perfect camouflage for a brilliantly-colored traveler.

Fortunately, in today’s fresh clear morning, an energetic tanager chose an east-facing Madrone to forage through, and I finally got my first-ever recognizable photos of one. Continue reading

Field Notes: Mid-spring on May Day

It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May!

Female American Robin with nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Female American Robin
with nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

This time of year, the park is alive with song, sun, and scavenging for just the right nesting setup. It’s often a team effort; as the robin above collected dry grass, her mate was on a nearby branch, seeeep-ing softly.

Male American Robin Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Male American Robin
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Robins’ approach to nest construction is within the broad category of assembling: taking biological or non-biological materials and putting them together in various ways to form a sturdy nest. More specifically, robins use an interlocking technique, piling sticks together, then weaving grass to make a soft bed for their eggs and later young.

But the real expert weavers in our woods are the Bushtits, Continue reading

Hooting, drumming, flights so fine…will you be my Valentine?

Love is in the air! It swoops in graceful dark-winged arcs across the drooping tips of Western Hemlocks, rings through the forest in resonant baritone duets. Love hammers its name on strong bare tree limbs. And just before 5AM in yesterday’s misty gray morning, love hooted lustily in the cedar outside my bedroom window.

How do I love thee? the birds ask. Let us count the ways. Continue reading

Field Notes: Jewel Worlds in Teaser Season

Every year in late January or early February, we seem to get a week or so of lovely weather: sunny skies, temperatures in the 50’s that lure us out into the forest or onto the beach. And every year I succumb to the hope that spring is really on its way early this year, that the abiding gray will give way to blue, that the scent of moist air will get its floral infusion in February instead of April. Continue reading

Speed and stillness: A contemplation

Yesterday the fastest creature on Earth stopped by for a visit. Ever the news-bringers, our park’s crows alerted us to a predator’s presence, and I was astonished to see a rare Peregrine Falcon up there on a high branch, lit beautifully by the winter sun as the crows called, annoyed or just gossiping.

Peregrine Falcon with crows. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Peregrine Falcon with crows.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

My first Pacific Northwest peregrine encounter, 27 years ago, had involved only sound. I had just sweated my way to the top of Little Si (at 1500′, higher than almost all of the eastern state I’d just moved from).

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

Snoqualmie Valley, WA

I was sitting there on the rocks, munching granola and admiring the vast glaciated valleys and the two forks of the Snoqualmie River merging below me, when suddenly the air vibrated with a sound I couldn’t place; I caught a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye. Continue reading

Field Notes from the Season: Winter

(Field Notes is a new section of Natural Presence, comprising short glimpses of the natural world in different seasons.)

In a day full of administrivia, even a quick walk in the woods can refresh your spirit and wake you back up to what it is to be alive. We’re due for a big storm tonight and tomorrow, and when my neck and eyes began to protest that they’d been screen-focused for way too long, I strolled over to the bluff near my house for a dose of the real world avant le déluge.

The Pacific Northwest paints winter in muted shades of gray, soft green, dark brown, with watercolored skies and trees sketched in charcoal. Spray from the whipped whitecaps of an incoming storm, along with low-scudding clouds, blur boundaries: Salish Sea, glacier-smoothed islands, rocky Olympic Peninsula diffuse one into the other.

Winter study in black and white

Winter study in black and white
(Painted with ArtStudio on iPad Air)

I spent a while looking off into the blended distance while the air waltzed around me, not yet the gale force due tonight, but still fresh and gently swaying. I turned around to head back home, musing about how simple the scene had been in its tones of light and shadow, when a movement in a bush caught my attention. While at the bluff, I’d listened for our resident Northern Flicker deepening his nest inside a rotting madrone branch, but he seemed to be napping. I didn’t see any of the busy little juncoes and chickadees who usually forage in the oceanspray and salal, nor even hear the gull and crow regulars. So a wiggling branch stood out.

The creature in the shrub descended to the duff hidden beneath the shrubs and rustled there for several moments. Finally it revealed itself: a gray squirrel, not burying or searching for snacks of nuts as I’d seen in recent weeks, but collecting a mouthful of dried leaves to haul up a young Douglas Fir. Less than two minutes later, he was back down for the next load, then disappeared a second time into the high foliage. Up and down, up and down: hard work, but good work.

As placid as the place seemed at first, better attention revealed its midwinter aliveness. Even behind that overcast western horizon, the setting sun is moving inexorably northward, and the gradually increasing moments of daylight signal the impending busyness of leafing, flowering, fruiting, nesting. A few buds swell, a flicker chips a bit deeper into an arboreal burrow, a little squirrel buttresses his nest against a storm or for future babies. I go back inside to write and sketch and listen for the first gentle drops on the roof.

Winter storm

Winter storm

Passings: The Ghosts of Pleasure Beach

Volcanic mountains rise in rough white-capped waves below as the jet stream carries me eastward in my metal cocoon. We pass the sharp drop of the Colorado Front Range, and I reread its geology with the familiar pleasure of an old book: a massive fault system along which twisted ancient rocks have been thrust by circumstance into aerial performance. Still further east, a formless blanket of cloud extends from horizon to horizon, obscuring rocks, rivers, towns, burying geologic and human history alike.

* * * * *

It was December 19, and I was flying from Seattle to New Jersey to help my family celebrate the life and acknowledge the passing of my uncle Ernest a few days earlier. He wasn’t a believer in God or a churchgoer, but growing up in the core of Manhattan, he and his siblings were nature lovers. Central Park was steps from their front door and, with their father and sister, the boys who were later to become my uncle and my father examined glacial scars on rocks, unearthed salamanders, watched leaves sprout in spring, glow with autumn, wither with winter. Until shortly before his death at 92, my uncle loved to walk through the arboretum in the town where he lived all of his adult life. He adopted a trail near his home and helped clear it of invasive plants, learned the birds, monitored its health.

* * * * *

In these dark circum-solstice days, I haven’t been monitoring the news. I already know that things are terrible and getting worse in Syria; that the Sudan is in crisis; that Egypt is undergoing new violence; that a year later, we’re still not sure why twenty first-graders were murdered in their Connecticut classrooms. The world’s agony leaves me gasping for breath and grasping for hope in the face of evil’s vast scale and scope.

My uncle Ernest, with more courage than I, faced human suffering and death straight on. He worked for decades as the county medical examiner, helping to solve murder mysteries. (At his memorial, a younger neighbor who’d gone into the family business of wildlife rehabilitation noted that my uncle’s dinner table was the only one he knew of where the conversation was even more graphic than at home.) Ernest loved his work, his scientist’s mind fascinated as he mulled evidence and assessed explanations for each life’s end.

* * * * *

My flight’s 3-hour delay at the Seattle airport had given me time to recover from my 4:30 am wakeup and to witness dawn from a new perspective.

Predawn fog with eagles End of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

Predawn fog with eagles
Taken from end of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

The delay also allowed me to read a New York Times article reminding me that eBird reportings were tracking Snowy Owls in their Northeast irruption. Snowys aren’t usually found this far south, but something—perhaps a bumper crop of baby owls last year, possibly a rodent shortage—has caused them to expand from their Arctic home. Rechecking eBird the next morning at my father’s Connecticut home, I found that Snowys had been sighted along a nearby stretch of Long Island Sound, and I was hungry for a dose of nature, so my father and brother joined me in a late-afternoon search party.

Our destination was Pleasure Beach, a sandy spit south of Bridgeport. An overconfident navigator (me) erroneously sent us first to an industrial dock where doves perched cooingly, silhouetted against cathedral-sized tanks of petroleum by-products destined to be transformed into new roads through the Hudson Valley, additional parking lots for New England malls.  Remains of past organisms, exhumed from their stone crypts, wait here to be called to eliminate more trees, seal more soils, so that we might move and park a few more cars.

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility Bridgeport, CT

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility
Bridgeport, CT

The spit’s tip seemed near through the dock structures, but we couldn’t see how to get to it from where we were, so we gave up and returned to our trusty GPS, which we could almost hear whispering “I told you so.” Finally arriving with its help at the beach parking area, I was thrilled to see a good clue to unusual-bird presence: a guy with a big spotting scope. (Size matters in the world of birding.) He pointed us down the beach, and other birders returning from their afternoon owl-watching confirmed that a Snowy had spent the afternoon snoozing on the spit.

Wetland, Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Salt marsh, north side of Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

We finally saw a second guy with a big lens and made a beeline for him—only to watch him fold it up just as we approached, saying the owl had just flown off “that way somewhere.” I gave up any real hope of finding it, but at least we’d had a good nature walk with a lovely sunset impending. Enjoying the search for its own sake, we ventured a little further, scanning the wetlands and grass for a Hedwig-shaped white blob just in case. We passed some old benches, stone jetties, rusted bits of archeology from some deceased culture.

* * * * *

More people let go of their lives in winter than any other time of year. (In my own small world, I know of at least five other deaths in the past ten days—no, now six, with a new death since I began writing.) Why? Cold makes our blood vessels constrict, meaning our hearts have to pump harder. Cold also makes us more susceptible to viruses. And if you’re elderly and perhaps already in ill health, you may be poorer and less likely to turn on the heat; you may also be more isolated and less likely to have someone notice if you’re not doing well. But I think also, the darkness must take a toll. It’s just so much to deal with, trying to keep up your spirits in the face of the weight of night.

Ernest, thankfully, was neither isolated nor poor, but he did know he didn’t have long. Adventurer to the end, though, he’d recently been trying to convince my father to come along on a February riverboat trip down the Amazon.

* * * * *

If I’d been paying better attention during our walk to what was actually around me rather than looking only for the owl, it might have occurred to me to wonder about the spit’s flattened top and the random sticks and metal poles emerging from the russet grass and shelly sand. I’d missed the clues that we were walking through what had once been Connecticut’s largest ghost town. For over fifty years, a carousel, theater, bumper cars had thrilled children and their grownups; our desolate, darkening spit had once been a vacation destination.

https://i1.wp.com/ww4.hdnux.com/photos/20/23/42/4274339/3/628x471.jpg

Pleasure Beach, about 1955.
(Click for link to source.)

Like so many other manufactured human pleasures, the thrills faded after a while, and finally a burned bridge near the dock we’d seen earlier ended Pleasure Beach’s amusement-park heyday. Children’s cheers have been replaced by gulls’ screeches. Federal regulations and a system of wildlife refuges have given threatened piping plovers and least terns a fighting chance through human detritus, and the birds are beginning to recover.

* * * * *

Ernest and I both turned toward the small places of nature after careers of scientific investigation of suffering and death. Like him, I’ve loved my work, but engaging with tragedy for a living—in my case, environmental disasters of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution—takes a deep toll.

* * * * *

Suddenly I saw the Snowy Owl. It was scanning the beach from the top of a nearby snag, preening and scratching as it prepared for a long hunt during tonight’s extended midwinter darkness.

Snowy Owl on snag Industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl on snag (upper right),
industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl at sunset Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Snowy Owl at sunset
Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

As the sunset’s glow faded and true solstice night descended, we watched the owl until the darkness rendered it a gray smudge against the dark-blue sky, city lights in the background. We started the long walk back along the chilly beach. As we crossed the last jetty, we caught a ghostly movement: the owl had been accompanying us unseen.

Snowy Owl Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh

Snowy Owl
(Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh)

It finally flew on beyond our vision, a living light adventuring into the
longest night.

Last sight of Snowy Owl

Last sight of Snowy Owl

.

In Memoriam: Ernest E. Tucker (1921-2013)

EET, always young at heart

EET, always young at heart


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