The Nature of July

I am a heat wimp. I’ve spent much of July sitting at the dining room table reading under the ceiling fan. I have read 14 books so far this month. Let me quickly note that five were graphic novels (Anya’s Ghost, Camelot 3000, two volumes of Lumberjanes, and Xena, Warrior Princess). Three were poetry (average length, 113 pages). Let’s just say that heady reading has not served a large part of the July reading menu, though I do still hope to find out Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

But one can’t sit in the dining room 24/7, so when a cool morning blew in a few days ago, Kathleen and I went birding. There were not a lot of birds to be seen (in part because the cattails obscured our view of the marsh). There was one particularly noisy resident; I searched and searched for this persistent singer to no avail. Later, the same sassy song taunts me on the other side of the road. Again I seek but do not find. Finally the poor bird took pity on me, and the marsh wren flew to the top of a cattail and sang and sang and sang. It was one of those I-love-birding moments.

Another sighting: A small bird was mobbing a red-tailed hawk, and every once in awhile, it would land on the hawk’s back and ride along for a few of the hawk’s wing strokes, and then go back to its pestering. It landed and sailed along three times while I was watching. Not for long, but definitely riding on the back of the hawk. I’ve never seen such a thing.

The lack of birds wasn’t much of a problem, because I kept getting distracted by the butterflies. One beautiful butterfly in particular I memorized, and then sketched it (badly, but captured size and color) as soon as I got back to the car. When I got home and looked it up, I found it was a painted lady. I had never even heard of lady butterflies. I spent hours perusing my butterfly book. Coppers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Commas.

I have always thought of butterflies as inhabitants of sunny grasslands and prairies. But I’ve learned that some butterflies prefer moist woods, others like to be near water, others like woodland edges, some prefer shaded forest, and a whole subset favors roadsides. They seem to be pretty much everywhere. Not just sunny meadows.

In addition to thinking butterflies mostly hung out in prairies, I also thought they pretty much flew the same. You know—like butterflies. But some fly low to the ground. Some fly erratically, others sail. Some swerve from side to side. Some are fast, some slow.

And the names! Part of my enjoyment while flipping through the butterfly book was appreciating the fine names of some of these butterflies: Sleepy Orange, Fatal Metalmark, Crimson Patch, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Common Wood-Nymph, Confused Cloudywing, Dreamy Dustywing, Black Dash, Whirlabout, and California Sister. I would love to see a California Sister.

I decided to start a butterfly year list (which of course means I have a life list but I only started it last year and I forgot about it because the butterflies have been gone so long). But it is July and the butterflies are back, and I have remembered the up-side of birding in July. Butterflies.

So far I have 7 butterflies on my year list. I am hoping to get to 20. A whole new world awaits me.

End of Birding Frenzy; On to the Garden

May has turned into June, and my attention finally turns to gardening. While I was in the throes of birding in May, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get any plants this year and merely tend the perennials. But then I remembered rosemary, and how much rosemary I use in so many things (cooking, of course, and I also add rosemary to many of my herbal concoctions—primarily for its taste and smell, but it also has some fine medicinal properties).

And my feverfew didn’t come back this year, which surprised me mightily. It was growing like a weed last year, even in the sidewalk cracks. This year, both the front and back are missing their feverfew. Rabbits? I do have (at least) two rabbits that spend a goodly amount of time in the yard. Mostly they seem to eat grass, dandelion, plantain, and clover. I wonder if they also favor feverfew.

So yesterday I went to the neighborhood plant store, and I got the rosemary (3) and feverfew (2—hoping it spreads like a weed again). And then I ran across the chamomile. I had decided not to grow chamomile this year—a lot of harvesting of those tiny flowers in the end didn’t even fill a pint jar. But I saw it on the shelf and I did the dangerous thing; I picked it up and smelled it. I smelled it and was back to the wonderful feeling I had while I was harvesting the chamomile last year. Also, homegrown chamomile even dried—no, especially dried—smells so much better than any I’ve found at a co-op or herb store.

So I bought the chamomile. And then I ran across parsley, and parsley (especially curly parsley) is one of my favorite things to eat right from the garden. It has always tasted like bright freshness to me and I believe it has the power to completely change one’s mood or viewpoint around.

So I got two parsley plants (one curly, one traditional—for research on my mood/viewpoint hypothesis).

And then I realized I really needed thyme. Not a lot, but especially for cooking, it’s nice to have a thyme plant. A thyme plant is added to the cart.

I had not planned to buy calendula. I had specifically decided not to buy calendula, as I still have a goodly amount left from last year, plus my herbal friend in California sent me even more. But then I saw the plants, and they have such bright orangey flowers, and they are so happy-making in the backyard. (Also very good for soothing the skin.) I thought getting only two was a good compromise.

I also got a bright red geranium to sit by the back door (this was in my original plan, even before the rosemary was added to the list). There is something about a geranium that makes me smile. I’m not sure if it’s the color, the smell, or its splashy sassiness. But really, now I think about it, I think I love the red geranium because it’s my mom’s favorite flower. So add a bit of love and tradition to that splashy sassiness.

I’m happy to report that nearly all of the plants have been planted, with just three left for tomorrow. I’m even happier to report that I’m ever-so-glad I changed my mind about the plants. Getting my hands in the dirt, working with the plants, the smells, the textures—oh yes. Why did I think I didn’t want to do this? I get to water and harvest and talk to my plants all summer.

I haven’t given up birding, just to be clear. I still have the binoculars on the table beside me. It’s just that now, a few other things can take up more room inside my brain. And June is for the garden.

In Search of Warblers, or, Joy in Unexpected Places

I have not been having a very good warbler season. Usually in spring (May especially) you catch small waves of warblers—maybe 20 warblers of a variety of species. That has not happened to me once this year. I’ve seen warblers, all right, but it’s been one here, two there, with not even a wavelet to be seen.

Knowing that time is slipping through my hands, yesterday I headed to the river to see if any warblers might care to wave at me. I sat, I looked, I watched, I waited, I walked. I stopped, I listened, I looked.

I saw one American Redstart. Hey, at least I saw a warbler.

I left.

It was a little cloudier and chillier than I expected, and home seemed a good destination. But at the last minute, just because the warblers will be here only a couple more weeks at best, I decided to stop once more. Sitting on a wall looking over the Mississippi, I noticed a largish bird (not a warbler) fly up from the ground about three feet and then immediately go back down.

That got my attention. I watched. Waited. It came back up. Just a glimpse and it is back down again. I am thinking, thrush? (In addition to the robin, we have several fairly common thrushes in Minnesota.) I keep watching; up it comes for only a moment. White eye ring. Gone for the longest time. Back—for several seconds this time, but I only see the top of its head— very rufous, almost orange, the color of a robin’s breast. I know rufous goes with a particular thrush, but I can’t remember which.

Then it shifts, just a bit, and I see black dots on the breast. Score for confirming the thrush ID, but even more excitement about the black spots, because they are not so common on our thrushes. And one of the thrushes with the black spots, I know, is the wood thrush. Could this be a wood thrush? I keep watching. A few more glimpses—silhouette, head again, shape (very round). After half an hour of no more sightings, I retire to my books.

It took almost no time at all to confirm that I had indeed seen a wood thrush, a new life bird for me! The rufous head (the other rufous thrush has a rufous tail); the black spots, the round body, hurrah!

I have wanted to see a wood thrush for years (most especially after I heard one—at least I’m pretty sure it was a wood thrush—up near Bemidji maybe 15 years ago). But while I have seen all of our other common thrushes, the wood thrush continued to elude me. Until yesterday.

I love when birding gives me total fruit basket upset. I went out looking for warblers. At the peak of warbler migration, I saw exactly one warbler. And I most unexpectedly saw a wood thrush, a bird I’ve been searching for, for more than a decade. The vagaries of birding.

I wonder if, as frequently happens after you see a bird for the first time, I will start to see wood thrushes quite often from here on out. I certainly hope so.

Maybe one will sing for me again.

The Reading Landscape

The reading theme for May is landscape/terrain. This is one of those broad themes that would encompass things like field, grassland, range, desert, marsh, and so on. I was really excited about this theme. I have a lot of landish books that I am really looking forward to reading.

But it is May. May, when the birds migrate. May, when the lilacs bloom. May, when butterflies return and the house windows are open. When the herbs are coming up and rhubarb demands picking. The month of warblers. May, when I have the binoculars right beside me even when I’m reading. Especially when I’m reading. May, when I bring binoculars into restaurants just in case we get a window seat. You never know when you’ll see a warbler wave.

I’ve only finished one book so far this month, but have several in progress: Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, by Marc Ian Barasch (later published under the title The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness); Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild; Prairie Reunion, by Barbara J. Scot (memoir); Divining the Landscape, by Diane Jarvenpa (poetry); and Joyland, by Stephen King. (Two of these are holdovers from the emotions theme. I love having books that cross themes.)

I am finding Field Notes on the Compassionate Life to be quite helpful. I tend to struggle with issues like grudges and resentment, and perhaps especially forgiveness. This book is giving me some good insights and suggests some practices that I think could be very helpful. I am reading it quite slowly (a chapter a day), because that seems to be all the compassion my wee brain/soul can absorb. And Strangers in Their Own Land promises to be fascinating, but I’ve only read the first few pages.

Report on last month’s theme (emotions): I experienced calm surrender, hate, love, happiness, disappointment, anxiety, longing, grief, moping, consolation, more happiness, wild comfort, and solace. I found emotions to be an absolutely lovely (and fun) reading theme. Best book of the month: Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, by Kathleen Dean Moore. I loved this book because sometimes I felt like I was right there with her, wherever she was talking about. If she was in the forest, I could almost smell the pines. The writing is that good. But also—there’s a spiritual element to this book which I resound with. Nature is always where I most feel god.

There are many potential landish options for the rest of the month. John McPhee’s Basin and Range is high on the list (he has two other books that also intrigue: Rising from the Plains, and In Suspect Terrain). Found poetry:

basin and range
rising from the plains
in suspect terrain

Other books of interest include Lentil Underground, by Liz Carlisle; and Of Landscape and Longing, by Carolyn Servid. And Notes From the Shore, by Jennifer Ackerman, is nipping at my brain.

Because I am a planner by nature, I always look ahead. The theme for June is celestial objects, and I am finding my pickings extremely skimpy beyond earth, moon, and stars. Any fun ideas or suggestions out there?

The Marsh Birds

I went birding with my friend Kathleen this week. Early May is a fine time to bird. It’s almost like birding in Florida (not that you will see a roseate spoonbill, but that experience of wherever you look—in the water, in the reeds, in the trees, in the road—there are so many birds to capture your attention, you can hardly decide where to look).

These are among the best birding days.

Today we went to the 180th Street Marsh, to bird in general of course, but also specifically to see yellow-headed blackbirds. This marsh is the best place I know of to reliably see yellow-headed blackbirds, and we were not disappointed. More, perhaps, than I’ve ever seen, and we got so close to them! Not that we snuck up, mind you (though of course I’ve done that), but we’d just be standing still and they would land a few feet away. They seemed to not particularly care about us. Saucy, bold, beautiful birds.

Somewhat less bold is the sora. Soon after we arrived at the marsh we spoke with a man who asked if we had heard the soras. I am not so very good at bird songs and calls, so I wasn’t sure. And then this guy does his rendition of a sora. Hmmm. Okay. Within two minutes, I hear almost the exact same call, from the marsh. And then one in another part of the marsh. He had nailed it!

(This is truly a gift, to be able to reproduce a birdcall so well. I can hear them perfectly in my head, but my reproductions do not often help the listener so much.)

We heard them, the soras. And heard them—on both sides of the road that crosses the marsh. Like right here—right at my feet. This bird must be within a yard. No sora. We stood so still for so long at a clump of reeds one foot away. In the middle was a sora calling, but could we see it? No. Sigh.

Moving on. The yellow-headed blackbirds continued to be beautiful, and who can be disappointed in anything when you have these insouciant birds practically landing on your shoulder?

We saw three kinds of swallow: tree, barn, and northern rough-winged. I also saw a purple martin (that was fun as I don’t see them every year)—in, or possibly fighting for, a purple martin house (of all things). There were many tree swallows at this martin house, and lots of activity. But not all tree swallows! Dark, dark, yes, martins! Kathleen was parking the car (lots of rain recently, soggy ground near the marsh and  parking was dicey) so she couldn’t see the battle in progress. When the car was parked, we almost immediately saw the yellow-headed blackbirds, and moved forward.

Lots of Canada geese, coots, and ducks (bufflehead, blue-winged teal, red-breasted merganser, ring-necked duck), but I would say that most of my time was spent enjoying the yellow-headed blackbirds and trying to spot a sora. There were so many! How could I not see one? (Birds do often have this amazing ability to disappear.)

After spotting a turtle sunning on a something, and a final look for additional ducks, we headed out. Before we got very far at all, I said, “Stop.” And there it was: a sora. Easily seen from the car without binoculars (although of course I DID look through my binoculars because it’s nice to see close-up). I was afraid Kathleen wouldn’t be able to see it, but she is enough taller (and she also has really good eyes) and got a very good view of it.

After the marsh we went out for lunch. En route near Minnehaha Creek, a merlin flew so close to our car I was afraid we would collide. Not a typical encounter.

Even when Kathleen dropped me off at home the birding continued: chipping sparrows just hanging out in the street.

May. Birds. Euphoria.

The Early Birds of Spring

I went birding with a friend Sunday morning. Neither long nor far, but a fine day nonetheless. Spring birding is mostly about water. This is when the ducks and shorebirds come back or migrate through. Sunday morning we saw trumpeter swans, wood ducks, blue- and green-winged teal, northern shovelers, canvasbacks, buffleheads, lesser scaups, a few great blue herons, one great egret, coots, and hooded mergansers.

None of these birds are new to me, but many are new this year. After a winter of frozen lakes, it is nice to have open water and birds thereon, and to look up and see a great blue heron flying overhead.

If you think seeing a great blue heron is a rarity, you would be mistaken. Throughout most of the United States great blue herons are either year-round or summer residents. Before I started birding, I had no idea. Once I started noticing birds, though, I saw great blue herons flying overhead all the time (probably one every few weeks, which is a lot for a huge bird you didn’t even know existed in your city).

Not all of the early spring birds are in water, though. There were a lot of song sparrows about, as well as downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers. Scads and scads of robins. And a couple of show-stealers:

A most flashy eastern phoebe, hanging out ever so close, flashing its tail and being sassy, beautiful, and back for the summer.

A fox sparrow, beautiful large rufous sparrow, this one had a very gray head. I do not see fox sparrows every year (though they are not uncommon here), and to see one is always a gift.

I added 14 birds to my year list (now at 65). I was really pleased about the 14, but of course it isn’t about the numbers. It’s about getting out—out with a friend, out in nature. I’ve seen a lot of eastern phoebes, but this particular eastern phoebe heralded spring.

There’s plenty of research out there showing that interacting with nature is good for us on many levels. I have always found nature my go-to place when I am troubled (in almost every living situation I have had, there was some sort of nature sanctuary within walking distance). But nature is also a go-to place for joy. I love birding. But in a way, the birds are just an excuse.

A couple of weeks ago I went birding with a different friend. We visited a marsh that had been teaming with life just a few days ago, but a cold snap had sent them off. A frozen marsh. We didn’t see a lot of birds. We did see one great blue heron (the first I had seen of the year) beautiful and majestic and commanding awe. But mostly we were accompanied by crows. We both like crows, so we were not unhappy. The crunch of a gravel road, being out of town. Being in nature, with nature. Looking for birds. A perfect day.

The Backyard Birds of Winter

Bird diversity certainly declines in the winter in Minnesota, but there are still a goodly number of birds out there. Of the 38 different kinds of birds I’ve seen so far this year, 20 have been in (or viewed from) my backyard. Twenty isn’t bad for early March.

A few days ago I glanced out the back window and saw a bird I hadn’t seen for many months: my first mourning dove of the year. The following day I was coming home from grocery shopping and something caught my eye in the woodpecker tree (this is the neighbor’s tree which hangs hugely over our back yard). I quick ran inside for my binoculars, and I’m glad I did because it was a brown creeper. These are fun little birds that climb tree trunks like nuthatches, but they tend to be a bit more elusive. And their coloring  is such that they blend right into the trunk. If the bird hadn’t been moving, I’d never have espied it. Even through binoculars it blended into the tree. The awesome of nature.

I have many of our common birds on my backyard list: house sparrow, American crow, rock dove, European starling, Canada goose. Also the usual Minnesota winter birds that keep me smiling through winter. Topping that list would be the black-capped chickadee along with the northern cardinal. Not far behind are the blue jay and the white-breasted nuthatch (both of which I often hear before I see). And it’s close to impossible to see a junco and not smile.

There are four kinds of woodpeckers on my yard list so far this year, all of them seen in the woodpecker tree: the first to appear was the hairy woodpecker, seen on New Year’s Day. The first downy woodpecker was sighted on January 14. On the 21st, I was thrilled to see a northern flicker (not nearly as common in the backyard as the downy and hairy). And then on February 24, the red-bellied woodpecker showed up.

The woodpecker tree is a huge maple (it would take two or three of me to circle the trunk), and it has one large limb that is hollow (I know this because I can see the sky through the woodpecker holes at certain angles). We get pileated woodpeckers too, but I haven’t seen one yet this year. I keep watching.

Also visiting the back yard this winter: American goldfinches, robins (first seen on January 3, which is not typical), a house finch or two, and a bald eagle (soaring overhead). Not bad for early March.

On a broader note, the spring birds are starting to come back, some of them quite early. Last weekend I saw trumpeter swans, red-winged blackbirds, and pied-billed grebes. Many shorebirds are also being reported.

Time to get out of the back yard and into the field. Spring migration has begun!