Tag Archives: seasons

The Healing Rain

Rain, finally

After a record-breakingly dry, hot summer, the rain has finally blessed us with the sweet scent of moist soil. Desiccated trees and shrubs, having finally enjoyed a long-awaited drink, are releasing oxygen-laden sighs of relief. You can almost hear their joy as they perk up their leaves one last time before settling down for winter’s quiet herbal introversion.

Raindrop on salmonberry leaf

Rain-drenched cedar branch

Our bird life is changing too. This summer brought to the Salish Sea an extraordinary number of Caspian Terns, whose daily foraging route seemed to take them directly over our house while they filled the air with their raucous conversations.

Caspian Tern checking me out (Lowman Beach, West Seattle)

Yesterday I caught a glimpse of one of the last terns soaring high overhead, perhaps giving his summer home one last look before he heads south to Mexico for the winter.

One of the last Caspian Terns of summer

I’ll miss the terns’ elegant soaring grace. But while the terns seek winter refuge in the Baja California area, others birds are arriving to seek winter refuge here, bringing their own voices and flashes of beauty to the turning palette of autumn.

Male partner of first Varied Thrush pair of the season

Some, like this Varied Thrush, will be with us all winter, sweetening the days’ ever-earlier dusks with their mysterious two-toned calls.

Others are just breezing through, like the warblers I encountered yesterday at one of my city’s large parks by the lake. My dear friend Nancy and I walked in spitting rain along marshes and swamps, catching quick flitting movements through willows and oceanspray. With their quick movements and leafy colors, the warblers were almost impossible to photograph, but I managed by sheer luck, a large-capacity photo card, and a bit of stubborn persistence to get a couple in focus.

Yellow-rumped Warbler with spider prey (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

The warblers are en route from Alaska and northern Canada down to Mexico. Bug-rich waystations like these wetlands are crucial to their survival, providing  essential protein, fruit, seeds, and shelter. It’s only because of intensive preservation and restoration efforts that these refuges still exist; not too many years ago, this land served as a naval air station. Collaboration among government, private companies, and nonprofits is transforming much of the military facility into a vibrant wildlife habitat and sanctuary.

We also discovered small companionable flocks of American Goldfinches making their way through the trees. This one made me chuckle with his decorated beak. I can just hear him thinking “What’re you lookin’ at?”

American Goldfinch, probably a juvenile (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Just a few days ago, I’d had a similar flock at my feeder. A juvenile (on the left) seemed to be successfully begging from its parent—but perhaps the middle goldfinch was simply scolding her companion, since by now the young birds should be pretty self-sufficient.

American Goldfinches

Here at the end of September, young goldfinches gather in flocks of increasing size, chattering as they explore in search of the season’s abundant food. Goldfinches will be with us all year, though their numbers will gradually drop as autumn progresses and many disperse to new territories.

Season of abundance, season of change; summer’s treasures disappear and new joys arrive, some for a brief shining moment and some for a lifetime. Now is the time of transition.

This year’s September has been hard. Some loved ones have left us forever. Others’ light has flickered briefly but will return bright and strong. Some hover on the edge of darkness, and only time will unfold the rest of their story.

But as summer turns to autumn, with time’s horizon inexorably lowering toward winter, the darkening season brings the comfort of quiet. We light the candles for wisdom as we embrace both loss and love; we welcome those who bring their harvest gifts of color and their notes of hope: rain on the roof, a two-toned voice in the gathering dusk.

Varied Thrush

 

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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

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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One Wren, New Under the Sun

The wrens are singing! This unusually bold fellow, a male Pacific Wren, perched by my regular trail yesterday and sang up a storm, not flitting into hiding even when I stopped and swung my camera into position.

Pacific Wren singing

Pacific Wren singing

When I first encountered the delicious extended burble that’s the Pacific Wren’s song, I marveled about it to a superb naturalist friend who used to teach in North Carolina. She told me of taking a group of students on a spring field trip, a hike up into the mountains to reach the spring range of the Winter Wren (formerly viewed as the same species), promising them the reward of a truly magnificent song in return for making their way up the warm, humid trail.When the group finally reached the wren’s elevation, they waited – and lo, there it was, somewhere deep in the forest, singing its little heart out! Many of the students oohed and aahed appropriately. (The other group’s response was “We climbed all the way up here for that?” But they were young; there’s still time.)

Now it’s our local forest’s turn. Pacific Wrens may be tiny and secretive, but they light up the woods with their complex melodies. We’re lucky enough to have them around all year long, and spring’s when they sing. (Lucky also that we can hear them with an easy walk along a bluff trail in fine breezy 60° weather; have you ever hiked uphill for hours in the North Carolina heat?) As described in this brief BirdNote from “Living on Earth,” it takes slowing down the Pacific Wren’s song to grasp that it may be telling stories we can’t understand with our ears.

Of course, it’s not just the wrens who are celebrating spring’s arrival. The budding Bigleaf Maples are attracting Black-capped Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna's Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna’s Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Everyday little birds, all of them. They’re regular neighbors who live here all year and do pretty much these same things each time spring rolls around. We humans, especially we scientists, love these regularities. Cycles and rhythms soothe us, reassure us that yes, even after the past year’s, any year’s, winter of wars and wrenching tragedies, the maple leaves will open, warblers will return to the flowering hawthornes, wrens will sing.

I’ve been trained for decades to look for these generalizations, to utilize the singular only as a clue to a new and more powerful pattern. Inexplicable uniqueness? No thanks, says my scientist-self; if it’s unusual, I want to explain it, figure out its bigger context.

It’s the artist in me, not the scientist, who wants to find what’s unique about this season—already so thoroughly explored by countless writers and poets for millenia—and this very wren, and treasure it for its own sake. Not only for what it might teach us about wren phenology or phonology or physiology—which knowledge I love not one whit less—but simply because that is a really cool song that the forest just sang. Right here. Just then.

Artist-self insists: This is not the same spring as before. This chickadee, who’s had a nest with her mate in this same Pacific Madrone for the past three years: rotting has opened her nest hole up so you can see right through it; what’s she going to do about that?

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

That particular Anna’s Hummingbird, who each spring has taken up his place at the top of the dead Bigleaf Maple that overlooks the salmonberry patch by the stream, defending his turf from that Rufous Hummingbird who regularly arrives once the blossoms begin to open: the maple finally blew down this past winter, and how’s he going to choose a backup throne?

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled, keeping a lookout for the Anna’s Hummingbird

What about this artist, this writer? This spring’s also different because I am: I now love penguins, when I only liked them before.

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

It’s different because I now have more memories of disparate natural beauties than I ever imagined a person could have; because Antarctica’s ecology-on-the-edge helped me to understand that ohmyGod what an astounding creature any tree is; because my soul has been fed with utter wildnesses that have taught me better how to pray attention. It’s an entirely singular spring because I’ve gotten to live a whole additional year with my beloved partner, and we’re both getting older, and other people I love are getting older, and one day it’ll suddenly be someone’s last spring.

And because a lone small red tulip has mysteriously sprouted in our side yard amidst a thick cluster of irises, while a distant wren was singing through the wind.

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle