Birding by Ear in Anchorage

I am downstairs, sitting in the rocking chair next to the hearth where the wood stove used to be. It is early morning. I am thinking about the next three weeks of travel, and writing. To my left is a small table. Beyond the table, a sliding glass door leads to a tiny patio. The world outside is dark and quiet. I stop writing when I hear, from the direction of the door, a remarkably loud birdsong. The voice is unmistakable—an American robin. Then it sings again. On the second verse I realize how unusually raspy it sounds and begin to question my quick identification. Perhaps it isn’t a robin at all. Perhaps there is a resident Alaskan songbird whose call is similar to a robin but rougher, harsher. Some people describe the scarlet tanager’s song as “a robin with a sore throat,” but I don’t think I would confuse a tanager with a robin. I hear both birds often enough back home on the farm to have a good grasp of their distinctions, plus Alaska is a long way from scarlet tanager range.

Leaving journal and pen on the table, I walk to the door. It is still dark out on this Anchorage morning, but the lights in the condominium parking lot provide more than ample glow to see a bird, were one perched on the fence. I scan the patio, the fence, and parking lot beyond. There is no bird in sight, everything is quiet, and I don’t hear the bird again.

Returned to my seat, I keep thinking about that voice. I listen to the morning silence, hoping it will sing again, and wondering. Perhaps it wasn’t a robin… I retrieve my computer from the bedroom upstairs and search for fall Alaska songbirds. There is nothing to be found online that fits the description other than robin, but with no more songs I can’t be sure. I wonder why it stopped singing so soon after it began. Was the raspiness due to a sore throat? A sore throat would make me stop singing. Or did the resident cat rear its head, cutting short the morning hymns? 

I walk back to the door to have another look. Overhead, I hear the ticking of a clock and look up to mark the time. My host Jerry knows his birds, and if I describe the song and the approximate time I heard it, he will identify it. Directly above the door, the clock is a large, round, white analog model, bearing the familiar logo of the National Audubon Society. Representing each hour is a different common North American bird. One o’clock is the great horned owl, 2:00 — northern mockingbird, 3:00 — black-capped chickadee, 4:00 — northern cardinal… It is now a quarter past seven. Fifteen minutes ago… at seven o’clock… the clock struck… the American robin.

I am still chuckling at my morning encounter with the not-quite-right roborobin when Jerry comes down the steps. Soon, he is laughing with me. We have a cup of coffee, and discuss plans for the day. Jerry reads the paper while I finish my writing. Before long, the digitally reproduced, unusually loud, raspy voice of a song sparrow brings another chuckle and reminds us it is time for breakfast.

As we walk out to the car, I am pretty certain I hear a real live robin across the parking lot. Jerry does not hear it, but confirms that some robins do overwinter in Anchorage, though most migrate south, and that fall would be an odd time to hear them singing. I can tell he doesn’t believe I heard what I think I heard, but I am convinced. Everybody needs a friend, and I suspect there must be one robin in Anchorage who recognizes the lone, raspy voice in Jerry’s condominium. There must be one robin willing to sing out of season, offering friendship to an unseen, two-dimensional bird on a cool, dark Alaska morning. Or, maybe an unseen voice inside my head is hard at work helping me avoid being the only one — bird or birder — to be duped by a singing clock.


These lyrics came to me one evening while driving the roads on Kodiak Island and I thought maybe a few folks might appreciate them. Feel free to comment–especially if you are a poet or a songwriter. I fancy myself neither, so you won’t hurt my feelings. Stay tuned for some slightly more serious (and hopefully better) writing inspired by my Alaska trip over the next few days…


There’s a man up near the tree line
Named for a prophet in a book
He’s hiding from his brothers
And the paths that they all took

His clothes are rags and colored
And his feet are bare and bent
He doesn’t own pajamas
Doesn’t know the president

His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

He is dark and he is clean
Spends 90 dollars on his soap
But don’t ask about the mailbox
He just don’t get that joke

And he builds a lot of fires
Burning pallets, logs and bricks
If you tell him that it’s summertime
He says the smoke is thick

His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

His best friend is a raven
Calls her Jezebel
Collects her fallen feathers
For a potion or a spell

He wears a tiny padlock
On a bracelet on his wrist
It is locked for all eternity
There is no key for it

His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

Up there on the mountain
He builds a wooden boat
He grows a lot of radishes
With no shovel or rope

His frame is thin and solid
his muscles taut and long
He doesn’t have a birthday
Doesn’t sing a favorite song

His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

He never makes a footprint
On the mossy, craggy trail
But the goshawk and the owl
Follow closely on his tail

He sometimes picks a mushroom
From a tree beside the brook
Though his whole world is the forest
That is all he ever took

His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

He might not live forever
But he will not die alone
The magpies and the grizzlies
Will know when he is gone

Until then he will wander
Out of sight from all the town
’til within an ancient mossy stump
He lays his body down

His house is caving in
But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin

But he stays up on the mountain
Where the air is fresh and thin
Yeah he lives up on the mountain
Where his air is fresh and thin

October Treasures

Gray Catbird and Rose-breasted Grosbeak Sharing a Limb

On any given day there are many reasons to walk the farm—discoveries to be made, wildlife to encounter. This time of year, I like to see what is blooming, hear who is singing or fluttering by, check for tracks around the pond. Every day there is a chance for newly arriving, or passing through migrants. The rose-breasted grosbeaks have been around for a few weeks now, hummingbirds are still defensive around the feeders, a black and white warbler stopped in a couple days ago, and a half dozen house finches have joined the goldfinches at the feeder. Gulf fritillaries are finding fall flowers, and a spectacular of array of yellow asters covers the field along with goldenrod. Persimmons and apples are ripe in the trees, and gift me with their delicacy on nearly every walk, while black walnuts and pecans are not ready for dropping just yet.

Gulf Fritillary Enjoying the Flower Garden

Yesterday evening, while eating an apple I had just picked en route to the mailbox, I came across a pile of rain-eroded scat at the edge of the driveway. I put on my glasses and knelt down to have a closer look to find that I was not the only one enjoying seasonal fruit these days. Apparently a resident raccoon has been feasting as well—evidenced by the dozen or more persimmon seeds in his excrement—a treasure!
After depositing my letter, I went to the kitchen for a ziplock bag and a paper towel, then headed back to the driveway to collect my newfound seeds. The refrigerator already has several of these bags, and there will be more before the season ends. Every summer I search out native fruit-bearing trees—persimmon and pawpaw—and relish in their sweet offerings. Every year I say to myself, this is the year. This year, I will save these seeds. This year I will plant trees. This year.

Persimmon Seeds in Raccoon Scat


Recently, a friend with a few wooded acres south of here granted me permission to grow some trees on his property. The seeds in my refrigerator are experiencing a simulated winter in preparation for planting there. The cold will scarify the seeds, enabling them to germinate. For a minimum of forty days they will chill, hopefully emerging ready to sprout. Some seeds, like many prairie plants, or the lodgepole pines of Yellowstone, are scarified through wildfires. Others, like the cedar trees that sprout along so many fence rows are prepared for germination in the digestive tracts of birds. Pawpaws and Persimmons like the cold.
Chickadees bring a smile to my face with their chatter, but remain out of sight in the canopy as I count twenty-seven shiny brown flat seeds in the scat, each a little smaller in diameter than a dime. One by one, I pick the seeds out of their crumbling encasement and place them on the paper towel. Then I think about the scat and realize it would be a waste to leave that rich fertilizer on the driveway. I gather it as well, carefully picking every last crumble out of the gravel. I fold the towel, insert it in the bag, and label it: “persimmon in raccoon scat 9/26.” Before refrigerating it, I will sprinkle a little water in the bag to keep it moist and seal it shut. Nothing says Autumn like a back of raccoon crap in your refrigerator!
When I am ready to plant my seeds I will record the date they were collected, the time they were refrigerated, and whether or not they were “raccooned.” By keeping those records, I will learn what processing results in the highest rate of germination. If “raccooned” seeds prove more successful than the seeds only refrigerated, I will have more work on my hands next year, but I don’t mind. Searching the woods for raccoon scat sounds like a perfectly lovely October activity to me!
For now, though, I will pick another apple and continue my rounds to see what other autumn treasures reveal themselves.


Hull Go!

Over the next few weeks, I plan on posting some works in progress from my Chestnut Ridge story. The story is one that has taken a very different shape from what I originally planned–morphing from a stage show to the beginning of a novel. This slice is the beginning work on a chapter with the working title “Hull Go.” Please let me know what you think, ask questions, critique. Thanks!

Hull Go!

“Hull go!”

Jimmy looked at Tommy, waiting for him finish whatever he was yelling at him. “Hull go,” didn’t make any sense, and he didn’t know how to respond to the older boy holding his closed hands in front of him like he had either just caught a frog he didn’t want to escape, or he was hiding something.

The two boys looked like they could be brothers—both had sandy blonde hair and blue eyes but Tommy’s hair was shaggy, unlike the close cut worn by his younger cousin. The older boy was about three inches taller and a little broader in the shoulders than the younger, but the real difference between the two was in their skin. Tommy’s hand were calloused and rough, his feet toughened from summers running barefoot around the cabin and in the woods of the River Gorge. On his right forearm was a long, jagged scar. Without a shirt, Tommy’s deeply tanned arms, neck, and face contrasted his pale torso.

By comparison, Jimmy was soft. And he viewed his wilder cousin with some envy, and respect.

“Hull go!” Tommy yelled again, this time a little slower and with more emphasis on both words.

When he saw his younger cousin’s lips begin to quiver, he opened his hands to reveal the treasure inside. Before him were four shiny brown nuts, about the size of an average striker marble and roughly onion shaped, but flat on one side.

“When I say, hull go, you’re supposed to guess how many nuts I have in my hand. If you get it right, you get the nuts. That’s how the game works. “Here, you can have them this time,” he offered.

Jimmy opened his hands and Tommy dropped the nuts into his little palms. One of them tumbled over his fingers, onto the ground, and he quickly knelt to pick it up, looking nervously at Tommy, afraid he might have done something wrong.

“Now you try it,” Tommy said, more gently than before. “Hide some nuts in your hand and when you say, ‘Hull go,’ I’ll try to guess how many you have.”

As Jimmy turned around and fumbled with the nuts, Tommy thought about the serious talk his parents had with him about the new member of their family. “Everything will be new for him here,” Mama had said to him, “and as the older cousin it is up to you to be extra nice to him, to teach him what you know. He’s more than a cousin now. He’s your brother. You have a big responsibility.”

Tommy was excited about having a little brother, and felt mature in his new role.

“Hull go!” Jimmy yelled excitedly as he wheeled back around, hands clenched tightly in front of him.

Tommy looked down at Jimmy’s hands and gave his best thoughtful look before offering, “Three?”

“Nope. Guess again,” said Jimmy with a giggle, clearly pleased that he had fooled his cousin.

“No guessing again. That’s not how the game works. Show me how many you have.”

Jimmy opened his hands to reveal one lone nut, then reached in his pocket to retrieve the other three.

“The rule of the game is that if I guess wrong, I have to give you the difference between how many I guessed and how many you have. Since I guessed three, and you only have one, I have to give you two more.

Jimmy’s smile broadened as he realized he had just won a game, even though he really didn’t understand rules, or the point, and even though and his victory was pure luck.

Tommy knelt down and very gingerly picked up an oddly-shaped, somewhat bulbous, spiky brown and green ball, about the size of his fist. They covered the ground beneath the giant tree that dominated the yard just upstream from the cabin. Some were closed up tight, others had slight openings. Even more were laid wide open, evenly slit into four lobes connected in the middle. On the inside, they were a light cream color and looked to Jimmy like heavy dogwood petals—soft and inviting compared to the protective outer shell that more resembled a cactus. Looking at the spiked exterior, he made a mental note to never step on one, and he wondered what other dangers he would encounter in his new and exotic world.

Tommy flipped over the one he had collected, and carefully pried it open to reveal three shiny nuts just like the ones in Jimmy’s hand. He turned it over, and the nuts dropped onto the ground. He picked two of them up and added them to the growing treasure in Jimmy’s hand.

“Your turn!”

“Hull go!”

“I’d say you have… four.”

“Nope! I win again!”

For twenty minutes they called numbers, and traded nuts back and forth. Eventually, when he had a big pile of nuts on the ground in front of him, Jimmy asked the question he had been thinking the whole time. “What are they?”

“Porcupine nuts. From the porcupine tree,” said Tommy, looking up at the canopy.

Jimmy’s eyes widened as he looked first at the giant tree, then at the growing pile of nuts at his feet. He had heard of porcupines, but he had no idea they grew on trees.

“When will they hatch?” he asked excitedly.

“They don’t hatch. You eat them!”

Jimmy’s brow furrowed as he pondered what he was just told.

“You eat porcupines?”

“They aren’t porcupines. They’re the nuts from the porcupine tree.”

“Where are the porcupines.”

“There ain’t no porcupines. Just nuts.”


Jimmy didn’t understand, but he couldn’t think of the right question to help him figure it out, so he just listened.

“I heard Papa talking with sheriff Saylor. He says there won’t be no porcupine nuts much longer, cause of a fungus.”

“A what?”

“A fungus. The Sheriff says its from China and it’s gonna kill all the porcupine trees. He said that the ones up north was already dead, and it was just a matter of time before it comes here. Papa don’t know what he’s gonna do when them trees is gone.”

Jimmy picked up one of the nuts and stared at it intently for a moment, then put it in his pocket with a determined look, as if by putting it there he was somehow protecting it from whatever that thing is that China was sending after it.

A voice called out from the cabin and the boys turned around to see Tommy’s Mama standing just outside the door. “Come on in for supper, boys!”

The two boys stuffed their pockets full of nuts and ran to towards the cabin. Papa was already seated at the table when they came inside. Tommy turned out his pockets, dumping the nuts into a basket by the door. Jimmy did the same, leaving one nut tucked away in his right pocket.

“You boys been playing Hull Go?” Papa asked.

“Tommy taught me,” said Jimmy. “I won!”

“Is that right…” Papa said. “Well you better keep an eye on that Tommy. You win a few games against him and get comfortable, then he turns around and wins all your nuts before you know what hit you.”

Jimmy looked suspiciously at his smiling cousin as they climbed into chairs at the small wooden table in the room that served as kitchen, living room, and dining room.

“We can roast some of those chestnuts after supper,” said Papa. “You’ve never had a roasted chestnut, have you, Jimmy.”

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders timidly.

“He don’t know what chestnuts are,” offered Tommy.

“Ah,” said Papa. “Porcupine nuts,” he clarified. “We’ll roast porcupine nuts, Jimmy, and you’re gonna love them.”

Jimmy was realizing that he had a lot to learn about chestnuts, about the river, and about life in The Gorge in general, but he was there to stay. He would have plenty of time to learn.

“Tomorrow, we’ll cross the river, and gather chest… uh, porcupine nuts up on Chestnut Ridge. That’s where the big trees are. Have you ever been in a boat, Jimmy?”

Jimmy shook his head.

“Well tomorrow will be another first for you, then. Just wait ’til you see the trees up there. Some of those trees are so tall you can’t see the top of them, and they are loaded with nuts.”

“Maybe, they are,” said Tommy. “If the fungus ain’t got them yet.”

“Don’t talk like that!” said Papa with a very serious tone.

From the stove, Mama pitched in. “Now Tommy, your Papa said that the blight hasn’t reached Chestnut Ridge and that it might not. We will remain hopeful.”

“But I heard you talking to Sheriff Saylor…”

“Never you mind what Sheriff Saylor said. The blight ain’t here yet, and until it comes… if it comes,” Papa corrected himself, “If it comes, well, we’ll deal with it when it does.”

“But what about China…?”

“You heard your Papa,” Mama said. “And you have more important things to worry about, like eating this pigeon.” Mama brought a cast iron dutch oven from the stove and set it on a mat in the middle of the small table, then took off the lid. Thick steam curled around the lid as she pulled it away, and with it, the rich smell of pigeon breast and potatoes escaped from the big black pot.

As they dug into their meal, the boys told Mama and Papa all about their day exploring the woods behind the cabin. Jimmy tried to remember all the things he had learned, Tommy helping him out alone the way. He recollected that poison ivy had three leaves and some red in the middle, and the vine was hairy.

“Tommy showed me where the raccoons live in the oak tree and where the older berries grow down by the river, but there ain’t none left this year. We’ll have to wait ’til next summer, if the birds don’t get them first.”

“Elderberries,” Tommy corrected gently, trying not to laugh and looking at his Papa for approval.

“I mean Elderberries.”

“And I showed him where the spring comes out of the rock, where Uncle Buddy had his still before he got arrested.”

“He doesn’t need to learn about everything,” Mama chimed.

“That’s okay,” said Papa. “Out here in The Gorge, Jimmy, people have to find ways to make a living however they can, and sometimes that means doing things that the law doesn’t approve of. Your Uncle Buddy was just finding his way.

“My Papa told me about him,” said Jimmy. “He told me that Uncle Buddy didn’t deserve to be in jail. He said his liquor wasn’t good enough to get arrested for and that if he had made the good stuff and sold it to the white folks he wouldn’t have been arrested. Papa said that he only got in trouble cause he was selling to the negroes. That’s what Papa said.”

Jimmy was surprised to hear himself saying so much, and even as he spoke he knew he should be quiet, that this was not a story he should be telling, even if he didn’t know just why.

“Well, your Papa was probably right about that but, deserve it or not, that’s where he ended up, and we’re gonna make sure we don’t end up there with him. That’s why tomorrow we’re gonna fill that boat up with porcupine nuts and after we cure them, we’ll take them to town and sell them at the curb market. The law don’t mind us selling porcupine nuts.”

After supper, Mama brought out what Tommy had been careful not to tell his cousin. For Jimmy’s first night in The Gorge, Mama surprised him with the first apple pie of the season, and all four of them had generous slices.

The boys loaded up the dishes in a basket and walked back to the now infamous spring where first they washed up the plates, cups, forks and knives, then they washed themselves. By the time they finished, it was dusk and back at the cabin they climbed up the ladder to the small loft on the south end of the cabin.

In town Jimmy had a proper spring mattress all to himself, but in the gorge he shared a dense matt with his cousin, but he was comforted to not be sleeping alone that night.

“Do you miss your Papa?” Tommy whispered in the dark. “Mama said I should bring up your Papa, but I figure you might want to talk about it. You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I miss him. But not Miss Caroline. She wasn’t my mama, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. That’s why you came here to live with us.”

“I’m glad I’m here, but I miss my Papa.”

“My Papa says he’s your Papa, too now, but that you don’t have to call him that if you don’t want to. He understands.”

Jimmy didn’t say anything more, but he was glad to have another Papa. After the funeral, Miss Caroline had told him that it would be okay to call his uncle, Papa, that his own Papa would understand. But Jimmy wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Right now, all he wanted was sleep.

Jimmy stood at the plate and looked out at the field. The sun was bright overhead and he pulled his hat down to shade his eyes. On the mound, his Papa stood wearing a gray uniform with the number 34 in red on his chest. Beyond the diamond an outfielder, too far away to see his face, stood beneath a giant tree. The tree’s limbs were loaded with spiky green balls that weren’t quite round and were stitched together with red laces. The outfielder picked a ball from the tree and threw it to his Papa who caught the ball and stood for a minute looking at in his glove before leaning forward and staring intently at the catcher. He shook his head once, then shook it again, then nodded. Then he picked up the strange ball, wound up, and hurled it towards him. The ball corkscrewed through the air in slow motion. It was headed straight towards the middle of the plate waist high, but Jimmy’s arms felt as though they were in wet cement. He couldn’t swing the bat, and as the ball reached the plate, it opened up into a white flower, spinning like a pinwheel that gradually slowed and floated to the ground between his feet. From the middle of the flower, three nuts spiraled out over the plate.

“Strike one, strike two, strike three… Hull Go! You’re out!” Jimmy turned to look at the umpire who had just called him out on one pitch. A porcupine dressed in black and white striped pajamas looked over the catcher’s shoulder. The catcher opened his glove and three tiny brown porcupines crawled out of the glove, up the catcher’s arm, and down his back. The umpire knelt down and opened a pouch in the front of his pajamas. The tiny porcupines jumped in. The porcupine catcher pulled off the pajamas and left them piled on the plate, then scurried across the diamond and out to the tree. He climbed up the trunk until he came to a large round hole where an old limb had broken off. He disappeared into the hole.

Jimmy looked around. The sun was gone and a quarter moon dimly lit an empty field. He was the only one there. He picked up the striped pajamas from the plate and put them on. From somewhere up in the tree, a whippoorwill called out its own name.

He searched for the bird in the canopy, but the song seemed to come from everywhere at once. He didn’t know where to look. When the bird stopped calling, the baseball field was gone and he was standing in the middle of a dense forest in his striped pajamas. There was just enough moonlight coming through the trees for him to find his way and he started walking, but the ground was littered with the spiked hulls of porcupine eggs that pierced his bare feet. He sat down and leaded against a tree and began to cry. A hairy vine growing up the tree was soft against his face, and he nuzzled against it and closed his eyes hoping sleep would deliver a different set of circumstances, but he could not sleep. All he could do was cry.

Yellow Skies and Silver Rainbows

Through dense, steep forest the gravel road climbs and winds for two miles before peaking and descending slowly into the gorge. In total, the drive is five slow miles. I rarely see other people on this road, and I like it that way. Today, I am the only one.

Halfway to my destination, a rat snake stretches across the road. Cloud cover denies her the heat she desires and I worry for her safety here should another car come along. I slip my hand under her cool belly and she curls into a ball, allowing me to gently lift her without protest. She never even flicks her tongue, and I consider putting her in my shirt to warm her, but realize the futility of such a gesture.  Instead, I place her at the edge of the forest in the direction she is traveling, and head on my way.


Rat Snake CLump
Safely Off the Road.

The sky is alive and fluttering yellow when I reach the Brookshire Creek trailhead. Tigers in the sky tell me it will be a good day on the river, and the clouds open enough to dapple the streamside parking area with agreeing sunlight.

After donning waders I make a sandwich, sit down on a log, and absorb the scene. Sitting at the edge of wilderness and looking in is, in equal measure, both stilling and exciting. I suspect the chance of seeing a black bear is as high as or higher than the chance of seeing a person up here, and that is all I need to know to feel at home and alive.

As I dine on smoked salmon and avocado, a bird I cannot identify sings from across the river: The tree, tree. Love it, love it! it seems to sing. I want to find this little one who praises the forest, to meet the one who shares my sentiment, but today is about fishing. Binoculars and big camera will stay in the truck; only the point-and-shoot will accompany me up river.


Smoked Salmon And Avacado Sandwiches Are Always Better Streamside!

The trail is nearly choked with dog hobble. A narrow footpath is all that remains of this designated horse trail. Trails left unmaintained are not long for a wilderness world such as this, but I, being neither horse nor rider, do not mind the encroachment. Knowing that soon I will leave this trail for the river, I carefully direct my seven-foot-nine-inch fly rod through the hobble and continue on.

Soon I find a navigable path to the river, and slip through a tangle of rhododendron. Boot deep in the water, I strip line from my reel and assess the casting situation. Along with the rhododendron and dog hobble, alders hang their limbs close overhead. Presenting a fly on this little river will not be easy, and I find myself kneeling in the water to flip a dry fly to a riffle a few feet upstream.

My second cast hits its mark and the fly dances down the far side of the current until it meets the silver flash of a rainbow trout and disappears. My reaction is too slow and I pop the fly out of the water and into the waiting arms of an alder. Silently, I implore the tree to be kind to me, and it releases my lure without struggle—a gesture I do not take lightly. Must remember to be nice to the trees, I think.

Easing upstream, I drop a fly at the top of the riffle where it disappears immediately. Unlike the first one, I feel the tug of this trout for an instant, but only an instant. It is the fourth or fifth fish to be fooled that finally makes it to my hand—a tiny brook trout, beautifully adorned with orange spots and speckled dorsal fin. This is what lures me to the wilderness!

Brook Trout!

Despite the name of the trailhead, I am fishing the upper Bald River. Two miles upstream, Brookshire Creek is an aptly named brook trout haven. Introduced brown and rainbow trout took over these waters after brookies were lost during the heyday of over-logging our southern mountains. Today, a fifteen-foot waterfall protects the reintroduced natives from those encroaching interlopers. I consider hiking above the falls where these little guys should be abundant, but days are short in mountain gorges, and one day is all I have. A two-mile hike would only cut into fishing time, so I stay on the Bald with hope there will be more brook trout down here among the dominant carpetbagging rainbows.

The yellow that filled the sky on my arrival now swirls around me as I creep up the river. Just ahead, on a bare spot atop an otherwise moss-covered boulder, several tiger swallowtails have gathered, and I ease their way to see what all the fuss is about. Not being much of a scatologist I can’t say for sure, but I think the yellow sky was drawn to earth by a pile of otter feces—an interesting juxtaposition to be sure. I have never seen an otter on the upper Bald, but a reliable source has assured me they are a few water miles away on the North and Tellico Rivers, so it is not unlikely. Then again, this is a very small river for an otter, and it could be raccoon scat. Either way, the tigers love it and I stop for a couple photos before they return to coloring the sky.


Tiger Swallowtail on Poop
Tiger Swallowtails Gather Around Scat

It takes more than four hours to fish a mile of the river, and the fish never stop taking my fly. The afternoon is filled with one rainbow after another—most of them measuring four to six inches. Occasionally, deeper water nets me a ten inch beauty—small by many standards, but no slacker in this little water, and more than enough trout to delight me. That first trout of the day proves to be my only brook trout, but I am not disappointed as I secure my fly and reel in my line.

One Of The Nicer Rainbow Trout I Landed On The Upper Bald River

Back on the dog hobbled trail, I hear the same song I heard at the trailhead, this time preceded and followed by some attention-getting chips. Hey! Hey! Hey! The tree, tree. Love it, love it! Hey! Hey! Hey! Twelve feet off the trail, a little bird bobs and turns, and bobs and turns. His tail seems to pull his whole body down and back up as it drops and lifts. A strong white eyestripe couples with the behavior to allow for quick identification. The Louisiana waterthrush is a delight to behold in any riparian zone, but like all other experiences, it is even better in wilderness.

Doghobble Trail
The Trail Disappears Into Dog Hobble

I enjoy the company of the waterthrush until he moves on, and I do the same. My attention now piqued, I scan the trees and listen closely as I walk. A few songs in the canopy are left unidentified, but one bird drops down for a good look—a black-throated blue warbler says hello just as the end of the trail comes into view.

The warbler does not stay long, and I look down to negotiate a wet spot in the trail. At my feet the sky is beautifully reflected in a pool. Beneath the surface, hundreds of tadpoles are in a race against the weather. With no rain in the immediate forecast, I hope these little guys grow legs before their home grows dry!


Tdpole reflection
Earth Meets Sky On The Brookshire Creek Trail

Not quite ready to end the day, I drop a fly in the final few yards of river left between the truck and me, and find the day ending the way it began—with a silver flash and an empty hook. Again, I am not disappointed. The land of yellow skies and silver rainbows has been generous today. Next time I will go the extra mile to find out if the benevolence of the Bald River rainbows will be shared by the brook trout of Brookshire Creek. Until then, I can only hope for more yellow skies!

Note: I refer to the Upper Bald as “wilderness,” as it is managed as such by the National Forest Service, but legally it does not have that status yet. The Tennessee Wilderness Act, cosponsored by Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker would change that designation and protect this magical place in perpetuity. Visit or email me at to find out how you can help!


Warbling In The Clouds

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

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

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

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

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


Cloudy morning in holly.jpg
A Handsome Warbler

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

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

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

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

Distant Meadowlark
Distant Meadowlark Sings In the Cloud

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

Here Am I!

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

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

Purple Iris 2
Purple Iris

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetshrub 2
Bosom Bush Bloom

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

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

Little Purple
Violets abound!

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

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

Slant-line 2.jpg
White slant-line moth on azalea flower.

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

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

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

A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

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

A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

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

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

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

“I find it troubling…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meep… Meep…

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

Meep… Meep… Meep… Meep… silence…

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

Meep, Meep, Meep, Meep…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The calling begins immediately.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

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

Meep… Meep… Meep…

He turns, sending out his beckon in all directions.

Meep, meep, meep, meep…

Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

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

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

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

Meep… Meep… Meep…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay’s Point

The playa was littered with a sea of colorful shotgun shells and brass casings left behind by hunters and sport shooters, but there were no sportsmen there in March, and Lindsay had the desert largely to herself as she wandered away from the group. Part of a bird watching group visiting the Blanca Wetlands of south central Colorado, Lindsay was not there for the birds. Rather, she was there watching the bird watchers, photographing us for a magazine article.

I, too, had strayed from the group and was watching a handful of American coots on a small pond when I heard Lindsay’s voice forty yards behind me. She was talking with Chuck, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee, and the two of them were focused intently on Lindsay’s outstretched hand. Intrigued, I walked over.

At first I thought she was holding some trinket from a gumball machine—so clear, colorless, and perfect. It must be a plastic toy replica, I thought. It couldn’t possibly be real… But I quickly realized what they already knew: the perfectly-knapped quartz arrowhead she held was very real.

Lindsay showing her find to birdwatchers.

The little point, roughly an inch-and-a-quarter long had no visible nicks or chips. It was flawless. In her hand, it appeared slightly milky white, but when Lindsay held it up to the sun, light passed through barely hindered. It was nearly as clear as a diamond.

I have seen plenty of flint-knapped points, and found a couple of them over the years, but never had I seen anything like this. A piece of quartz, worked by a master craftsman into a form that was, to my eye, more appropriate for exhibition as art, than for hunting.

Soon, a small crowd of binocular-wielding tourists was gathered around us, passing the wonder from hand to hand. An announcement that it was time to board the bus interrupted the show-and-tell, followed by an expected but unwelcome follow-up from Chuck: “I marked the spot with my jacket… Time to put it back.”

The three of us walked out to the spot where Lindsay had first seen the point. Chuck picked up his jacket and turned back towards the bus, trusting that Lindsay would do as instructed. Lindsay surveyed her surroundings, as I looked over my shoulder at Chuck who was back out on the dirt road and paying no attention to us. We looked down at the point, clearly thinking the same thing.

After a silent moment, she set the point back on the ground where I photographed it. We said nothing, but I was certain she was thinking the same thing I was. I looked back at the bus. Chuck was nowhere in sight. Nobody was watching.

Arrowhead 1

As we walked back to the bus, I picked up a 12 gauge shell and smelled it. The sweet smell of gunpowder was still faintly present. I thought it curious that this modern tool served the same purpose as Lindsay’s point and, like that artifact, was left behind by a hunter. Yet nobody would have complained had I walked off with this one. I suspect, in fact, I would have been thanked for picking up “litter.”

The next day, I considered driving back out, parking at the gate, and walking the mile or so to find the point. I was confident I knew exactly where we had left it. After all, I reasoned, it is only a matter of time before it is found by another, and I am equally confident that when it is, without Chuck there to police the situation, it will be pocketed by someone, and taken home.

I appreciate the value of protecting archaeological sites from looting. There are things to be learned by uncovering snapshots in time from cultures long extinct, migrated, or evolved. But Lindsay’s point wasn’t part of a site to be excavated. It was a solitary artifact on a hunting ground. I could understand requiring Lindsay’s point to be turned over to the BLM for display in a visitors center or museum. But a single arrowhead lying in the desert isn’t going to serve to enlighten archaeologists about ancient life in the San Luis Valley. Left behind, it is far more likely to end up on that mantle beside a piece of petrified wood, beneath some mallard, teal, or wood duck, to be shown off to friends.

We want to honor the people who inhabited the land before us—especially after the unspeakable atrocities we committed against so many of them, but do we honor a people or a history by lugging weapons of mass duck destruction into the wilderness, and littering the landscape with hunting detritus, then leaving their ancient art in the dirt for anyone to trample, pocket, or sell on the black market?

I wish I had slipped Lindsay’s point into my camera bag, and slipped it away unnoticed, taken it home, and later, mailed it to her. Not because she has some inherent right to it, but the BLM wasn’t interested in giving it any place of honor, and at least Lindsay is an artist who appreciates things of beauty. Personally, I would rather it be on display in a museum honoring a time, a people, and a way of life long past. If the BLM hasn’t such interest, however, I would prefer that it in the hands of a photographer from NY who will treasure it, protect it, and photograph it, than for it to end up on the mantle as one more trophy harvested.

Perhaps, next time I am in Colorado, I will revisit the Blanca Wetlands and go on a treasure hunt. If I do, and if I am successful, I will not write about it.

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