May-June Book Themes

May has gotten away from me, as it often does. So much going on, what with spring and all. For most of May I’m either outside or looking outside unless it’s raining or nighttime. You just never know when an ovenbird might show up in your yard. (It’s been back twice since. Maybe it will nest!)

Back to books. The May theme is architectural elements. So far I have read a staircase, a kingdom (perhaps a stretch), medicine chest, bridge, and fountain. In process are a picture window, stairway, and corridor. May is not one of my stronger reading months. I just don’t care so much about books. The birds are migrating, the catnip is coming up, the cactus is singing. I may still love books, but I can’t seem to focus on them.

June gets a little more down to earth. Still plenty to see and discover, but a bit more time for books as well. The theme for June is “green.” This includes any book with the word “green” in the title, and also green things (e.g., grass, trees, plants, parks, leaves, salads, envy).

I’ve not yet done a scouring of the shelves. Even so, I’ve likely found more than I can read. So far for fiction:

  • Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
  • Sunset Park, Paul Auster
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
  • Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas
  • Murder on Sagebrush Lane, Patricia Smith Wood
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

For nonfiction:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, Gayla Marty
  • The Green Boat, Mary Pipher
  • Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Andrea Cohen-Kiener (a bit iffy on direct theme fit, but the greenest book of them all, and I really want to read it, subtitled: “The ecological crisis through the lens of faith.”)

Poetry often adds fun variations on the theme:

  • Goodbye to the Orchard, Steven Cramer
  • Green Soldiers, John Bensko
  • Nettles, Betty Adcock
  • Flower Wreath Hill, Kenneth Rexroth
  • Now the Green Blade Rises, Elizabeth Spires
  • You Speak to Me in Trees, Elana Wolff
  • The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri

With luck I will read five or six of these. You just never know what you’ll be in the mood for. And I’ll probably find half as many again before June even starts!

Happy reading to you, and happy summer as well!

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Post-Blizzard Birding

Last night when I went to bed, I had seen 31 bird species so far this year (including wild turkey and great egret just yesterday). Most (60%) I have seen from my house or yard and nearly all the rest have been spotted while driving (mostly to visit my mom).

(Reminder: We had a blizzard here last week that gave us 20 inches of snow. I’m pretty sure I was shoveling at this time one week ago.)

Today, I added 39 new birds to my year list.

That just sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? But not so much if you’ve been socked in by winter for far too long, and the birds were having none of it.

Our first stop was a marsh that I was sure would be all open water with our current temperatures in the 60s. Shocked we were to see it frozen as we approached, and we nearly turned around. Oh, let’s check it out. And so we did.

Not completely frozen over; open water around the edges. We see red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, coots, pied-billed grebe, ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, wood duck, bufflehead, and lesser scaup. Also flying around: barn swallows, tree swallows, and at least one northern rough-winged swallow. Horned lark, song sparrow, killdeer, eastern bluebirds, northern flickers, brown-headed cowbirds and one ring-necked pheasant. We were glad we didn’t turn around.

And while we were already exceptionally pleased with our birding morning, we continued on to a nearby lake. Who knows? And our luck continued: white pelicans, Bonaparte’s gulls, hooded mergansers, red-breasted merganser, horned grebe, ruddy ducks, green-winged teal, and common goldeneye. In the trees and surrounding area: western meadowlark, mourning dove, yellow-rumped warbler, eastern phoebe, and gray catbird (heard only, but there’s no mistaking that sound; they are a frequent backyard bird here).

We leave the lake—sated with birds and craving food. Moseying down the road, we flush a bird from a shrub near the road. This is not a shape I see often. I watch—this familiar not familiar sight—American woodcock! A life bird for me, completely and totally unexpected.

A week ago I was shoveling out from a blizzard. Today I added 39 birds to my year list.

I love Minnesota.

Early Birds 2018

I start a new bird list at the beginning of each year. (This is in addition to my life list—all the different birds I’ve seen since I started paying attention; and my yard list—all the birds I’ve seen in or from my yard or the house.) The new year started out on a good note.

The first bird of the year was a goldfinch. Any year that a house sparrow is not my first bird is a good year. But a goldfinch seemed especially fine. I don’t see goldfinches in my yard every day, or even very often, so having a goldfinch greet me on my first look out the back window on the morning of January 1 was a fine start to the birding year.

The next bird to arrive was the house sparrow, but along with the house sparrow, umm—not a house sparrow. Female house finch! I never did see a male (much more obvious, like a sparrow with a head bathed in raspberry), but the female hung around for quite a while. I’m attributing this in large part to the fact that I threw out some birdseed on December 31st—it was so cold! In addition to water, I always try to put out extra birdseed on these extra cold days (meaning the high temperatures are below zero).

That was the exciting start to the birding day (and year). Later in the day (back at the window), I saw a blue jay. I love the jays—sassy birds, smart too, and always fun to watch. They have a huge number of calls and songs. The jay was followed by a cardinal. I see cardinals in the yard pretty much every day, but it’s not a guarantee, and I was glad to welcome him to the new year. Mid-afternoon some crows flew overhead, moseying towards their roosting area near downtown. Just as we’re nearing dusk, I hear honking and look overhead. Canada geese.

Seven bird species on the first day of the year is not bad, especially since I didn’t leave the house.

January 3: a spectacular add—bald eagle. Not spectacular because it’s so rare, but because the sighting was so very fun. I was out shoveling the walk on a very cold day, and I heard crows calling to the north. I look up and see they are chasing after an eagle (this is called mobbing). The eagle is flying fairly low—just above the treetops, and then whee! it swoops down and into the street, only just a few feet above the pavement. It flew along for several yards, and then started the ascent back to the sky. I heave a breath of relief (it’s a fairly busy street) and continue to watch the eagle. It moves up and up and slowly drifts south (all of this happened about a short city block to the north) until it’s right overhead.

Even as I was standing there I realized I must look like an idiot, and had done for a good 15-20 minutes, standing on my front sidewalk in a windchill of -20 or so, staring into the sky with a big grin on my face. And I couldn’t care one bit because it was one of my more magical birding moments. I watched until I couldn’t anymore because I’d be staring right at the sun. It felt like a New Year’s gift.

Also on the 3rd, I saw my first black-capped chickadee of the year, and my first junco. I love both these birds, but the chickadee especially makes me smile. Black-capped chickadees are year-round residents in Minnesota, and a fun backyard visitor most especially in the winter when the birds are fewer. I also saw a rock dove (aka pigeon)—the only bird on my list so far that is not on my yard list.

Except for the white-breasted nuthatch that I saw on the 7th—a warmer day and we walked to the pizza place. I heard the nuthatch call before I saw it.

And that was it for a while, until the 14th. I was looking out the back window at a group of Canada geese overhead (I always look up; it’s winter, there aren’t that many birds, and I want to respect the ones that stick it out), and one of these geese seems more of a duck. What? I look closer, and no, not a duck, a very small Canada goose—Cackling goose! This is a new bird for my yard list.

So far, the early birds bode well.

Happy birding!

December Flies In

The reading theme for December is Things That Fly. Or, it could be Things With Wings. Or perhaps we should have gone with the simpler, Flight. As I mulled this over while I perused my shelves, I settled more and more on Things That Fly. Because a lot of things fly. In addition to all kinds of birds, both time and the wind fly, the weekend flies, as do mosquitos and kites (which are also birds, but in this case I mean the kite that is flown with a string by a person on the ground).

I like a little wiggle room.

When you have such a very broad lens, you kind of look at your book collection in a different way. I have a very small kid/YA shelf, but it was quite lucrative:

  • The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
  • The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
  • Memoirs of a Bookbat, Kathryn Lasky
  • Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
  • Dragons on the Water, Madeline L’Engle
  • The Young Unicorns, Madeline L’Engle

(Everyone does know that both dragons and unicorns fly, yes?)

I was a bit surprised at how many angels were lurking in my fiction books. I expected more birds, but dragonflies, cockroaches, bees, and even a ghost also flew onto the pile:

  • The Bay of Angels, Anita Brookner
  • Angel, Elizabeth Taylor
  • Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym
  • Angel Landing, Alice Hoffman
  • Cockroaches, Jo Nesbo
  • Ghost of a Chance, Amy Patricia Meade
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
  • The Bees, Laline Paull
  • Reel Time, Julia Willis
  • Day of the Bees, Thomas Sandez
  • The Weekend, Peter Cameron
  • The Pollen Room, Zoe Jenny
  • Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra
  • Red Sky, Red Dragonfly, John Galligan
  • The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kid
  • The Curlew’s Cry, Mildred Walker
  • Starling, Sage Stossel (Graphic novel)

You can see why I might like these monthly book themes: Most of these books have been on my to-read shelf for years, and now they’ve been dusted off and brought to light. And I haven’t even gotten to nonfiction yet:

  • The Winged Seed, Li-Young Lee
  • The Snow Geese, William Fiennes
  • The Geese of Beaver Bog, Bernd Heinrich
  • The Wind in the Ash Tree, Jeanine McMullen
  • Private Lives of Garden Birds, Calvin Simonds
  • Songbirds, Truffles, & Wolves, Gary Paul Nabhan
  • Here at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall
  • The Hidden Lives of Owls, Leigh Calverz
  • Death of a Hornet, Robert Finch
  • The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman
  • Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil
  • Under a Wing, Reeve Lindberg

So many books flying onto my plate, and I know I can’t even read the half of them! (And then of course, there’s always the other book I want to read, totally outside the theme—what’s a reader to do?)

And I haven’t even mentioned poetry. Poetry adds Cardinal, Humming Birds, Arrow, Butterflies, Kingfisher, Flies, Phoenix, Mosquito, and Spirit to the flying pile.

It’s good to be excited about reading again. I didn’t read much in November. I didn’t finish a single nonfiction book, and read just two fiction books (one short, the other light), a graphic novel (which probably held my interest the most), and two poetry books. A bleak (for me) reading month.

But I can tell December will be different. So many of the books are calling. Which of the Geese books should I read? Absolutely I will read Starling. Poetry? Who knows?

It’s good to be back. Happy reading.

Leaping into Autumn

How’d that happen? It seemed like it was all summer all the time, and then I turned around and it was fall. I think it was the freeze warning a couple of days ago. We didn’t frost in Minneapolis, but lots of other parts of Minnesota did.

The frost put me in mind of the herbs that I want to harvest before freeze—rosemary, feverfew, catnip, lemongrass. I went to grab a basket for the fresh-cut herbs, but all my baskets seemed to be full with pretty much already dried herbs. Yikes! I needed to take care of these herbs before harvesting yet more.

First, I had to gather things together. The cat seemed to have had a bit of a heyday in there swatting at the herbs (he is particularly fond of the lemongrass, for some reason—much more so than catnip, interestingly enough). He also seems to have squashed my drying calendula (which I realized was pretty much completely dried since most of it was decimated into wee bits). Sigh. Luckily, I still have some left from last year and as well as plenty from my herbal friend in California.

I sorted yarrow, lemongrass, sage, rosemary, catnip, and lemon balm. For cleaning, I started with the lemon balm and then did the catnap. These two got combined, and I poured organic vodka over them. In six weeks, I will have a wonderfully effective mild sleep aid (just a small sip before bed). Also good for anxiety and upset stomach.

Next I cleaned the yarrow. Then I sat and looked at my list and thought for awhile about what I wanted to do with the yarrow. I usually tincture it, but I have plenty of yarrow tincture on hand. So I cleaned the rosemary and added it to the yarrow (used the pestle to ground it up pretty well, especially the rosemary), and covered them with olive oil. This is a new combo I’ve not tried before, but it should be good for arthritis. And it should smell good (rosemary has many medicinal properties, but I think its sharp, happy-making aroma might be the most powerful).

Sage and lemongrass didn’t seem like a good combination to me, so they remain. I think I will keep the lemongrass to use in salves (it imparts a nice lemony scent), and perhaps use the sage primarily in its customary culinary role. (Sage dressing for Thanksgiving, anyone?)

When I saw all the clean-up I needed to do before harvest, I checked the weather for the next few days. The lowest prediction is 38 degrees, and then next week we climb back up to toy with the 70s. I decided that if the lemongrass, catnip, and rosemary had survived this far, they could wait until next week. But I did harvest the feverfew, because I have none in back-up (which really surprised me when I moved into almost panic mode while going through the pharmacopeia and coming up feverfewless).

Lots of autumnal signals outside my herbal obsessions: Last week I saw white-throated sparrows in the backyard, migrating south for the winter (not very far south—they overwinter in Iowa and the southern United States; one year I had a white-throated sparrow at my feeder throughout most of the winter, very exciting for a Minnesota birder). I also spotted a Tennessee warbler in my backyard a few days ago. Definitely migration season.

And of course the trees, the plants, the colors, the leaves. The trees closest to the Mississippi are starting to get serious color. A lot of trees in Minneapolis are still green, but the sugar maples are already fiery orange and bright red. Beautiful contrast to neighboring trees just starting to mosey into yellow.

No crunchy leaves underfoot yet. The best part of autumn is still to come.

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.

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.