Birds of Prey Are Cool

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A few summers ago, my son participated in a day camp at the Catoctin Creek Nature Center.  One day, he came home eager to share something with us: a YouTube video. (Yeah, I know, I thought that it would be a cool feather or something, too). So, he typed “Birds of Prey Are Cool” into the search tool, and up came an educational video about (obviously) birds of prey, featuring a montage of film and pictures set to a weirdly catchy, folksy, guitar-strumming song cataloging each bird. Although it’s been years, we all still break out into song almost every time we see a hawk, eagle or vulture, which, embarrassingly, is not rarely.  In case you would like to do the same, here it is:

Birds of prey are common along the Monocacy, and, while I do see eagles, vultures (both Black and Turkey), red-tailed hawks, and barred owls are the most easily spotted (or heard). There is a pair of hawks that reliably nest not far from my neighborhood, and vultures glide over us in broad circles nearly every day.  In general, I see these birds from afar, but lately my interactions with them have been a little more personal.  While walking through a wooded area a few weeks ago, I disturbed a couple of turkey vultures and a crow who were feasting on a rabbit. While the crow chased off one vulture, the other flew in my direction, headed for a nearby branch.  Though not beautiful, turkey vultures are large, impressive birds, and my young hound mix was threatened enough to jump onto her hind legs, pull against her leash, and let loose a barrage of growling barks.  Eventually it was annoyed enough to leave, flying low and heavy through the trees.  Then, only two nights ago, at dusk, a barred owl squatted comfortably on a neighbor’s roof, allowing itself to be seen and chattered at by every small bird within a quarter mile’s radius. It was completely nonplussed, and no doubt was the same owl who couldn’t stop repeating his questioning hoots a few nights before. (The barred owl is the one who so famously asks, “Who cooks for you?”)  It took my son forever to fall asleep because he couldn’t resist opening the window and leaning out into the cool dark to hear the owl better.  The owl did get his answer that night, but it was from another barred owl, not us.

Today, in addition to a red-tailed hawk diving into the trees and a turkey vulture soaring in the distance, I saw a few other surprising birds, who, while not birds of prey, are predators in the eyes of fish and other swimming things.  Just as I approached the river, a belted kingfisher leapt from a tree toward the opposite bank, and below, on the water, I found a double-crested cormorant swimming on its own.  Both of these birds are ones that I feel lucky to have found, especially on the same day.  If you haven’t seen a belted kingfisher, you should look at my “Birds of the Monocacy” page, where I record all of my avian sightings.  The belted kingfisher really is a hilarious bird, something of a mix between a blue jay and a kookaburra.

But what has this to do with trash?  Well, to be sure, the vultures do a far better job keeping the river clean than I do.  They’re not very interested in picking up all the plastic, of course, but I’m not so inclined to deal with rotting flesh. I happily leave that to them.

When There Are No Pictures

Yesterday, while reconfiguring a temporary (and mostly imaginary) dam, my oldest boy discovered a snapping turtle under a rock.  Normally this would call for some panicked maternal shrieking – PUT THAT THING DOWN! – but the snapper was a baby, no bigger than my hand, and apparently too stunned to move. Nonetheless, my son, demonstrating an uncharacteristic streak of self-preservation, quickly threw the thing back in the water. “Wait!” I called out, too late, “I wanted a picture!” My son looked at me, then at the water, still rippling from the snapper’s entrance, then back at me. He didn’t have to say, “Are you crazy?  Those things bite!” His incredulous, clearly-I’m-smarter-than-you-mom teenage expression rendered such words self-evident.  Still, I felt in my pocket, grabbing for my phone, as I scuttled down the bank toward the river.  But there was no phone. No camera. Opportunity missed. Damn. I suffered the same frustration a few minutes later, when my boots left lovely prints in the carpet of bright green celandine leaves on the island, and again, only a few minutes after that, when I found the remnants of the nastiest picnic I’ve yet encountered: an empty 2-liter bottle of Strawberry Fanta accompanied by an also empty 2-pack of fruit punch flavored cigarellos. I could only imagine the hyped-up, nerveless state that such a combination of caffeine, sugar, nicotine, and artificial color and flavor would knock into a person.

In fact, I haven’t had this constant access to a camera for very long.  I got my first smart phone only a few months ago, after I lost my old flip phone somewhere at JFK airport on the way home from visiting my sister (whom I subsequently freaked out because the last thing I texted her before misplacing the phone was something like, “I think this taxi is taking me the wrong way.”) I am what you might call a late-adopter of technology.  I resisted the smart phone partly for financial reasons but also because I was afraid that it would distract me.  What I didn’t anticipate is how much I would come to depend on it. It’s wonderful because it has made this blog possible in a way that it never really was before, but it is also one more thing in this loud, artificially-flavored-and-colored modern life that serves as a barrier between me and the world of dirt and skin and breath. So, just for today, no picture.

But I’ll probably make up for it tomorrow.

Fairyland, Maryland

 

At this time of year, the silver 2-week period when the Virginia Bluebells bloom in concert with the delicate Spring Beauties, Trout Lilies, and even the alien Lesser Celandines, I can’t help but feel that I’m in Fairyland. And today, when the white sunlight shone beneath the gray rainclouds, it lit the world in crisp, clean, and almost metallic shadow, and I felt as if I was walking through a photograph.  With one effect on top of another, I might have been unreal myself, and, as must always be true when a proper fairy has you in its sphere, I was a little unnerved.

A few years ago, my father showed me an old drawing of mine that he had found in his basement.  Surrounding a smiling girl were curlicues and flowers, mice and birds, and I had written across the top, “Nature is Love.” My father, who has a wry sense of humor, laughed at me for having been a young, secret pantheist, and I was suitably embarrassed by the naivete and simplicity of my early drawing. Only a year ago, I was even more embarrassed when my nieces started reading aloud from my early diaries. They contained the usual, painful nonsense about boys, family problems, and worries about my appearance (listen to the podcast, Mortified, and you’ll get the idea), but they also had the affected, pretentious prose of someone who wanted very much to be a a writer and had read way too much Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, not to mention piles of Andrew Lang’s many-colored Fairy Books (Olive! Pink! Orange!). I wrote in high-flying language of my love of nature, of the joy of sitting by “the creek” and making up stories, of the respite from the “real world” it offered me.

In Fairyland, you lose time, or maybe you gain it.  At any rate, Fairyland changes time, so that you can be in two places at once, be two people at once, and yet be one person in one time all the same. Am I 10 or 40?  Have I grown up at all? I’m not a pantheist.  Or a pagan. More often, I’m a simple rationalist with a Lutheran upbringing.  But I can feel the magic, even if I don’t believe in it. That’s why there can be trash in Fairyland.

Save the Invertebrates

Foraging for trash proved a lifesaving mission yesterday.  While exploring the island, I came upon a bright yellow container advertising “18 Canadian Nightcrawlers.”  Since the top was off, I could see that there was still dirt inside. Assuming that a fisherman wouldn’t leave perfectly good bait to shrivel in the sun, I dumped the soil to put the container in my bag and was surprised to see several long, meaty worms fall writhing to the earth.  Hastily, I gathered them back up into the container.  But, after looking around in vain for the careless fisherman, I agreed with my boys that we should liberate the nightcrawlers (poor, displaced Canadians) and give them an opportunity for a new life on the Monocacy.  The boys decanted and reburied them a safe distance from the water.  On the way home, I attempted to throw away yet another piece of garbage, a random square of cardboard caught in some wintry underbrush, when I discovered a few snails clinging to its underside.  It was an easy decision simply to return the cardboard to the ground with snails intact.  After all, cardboard biodegrades, and the snails weren’t being particularly offensive.

UPDATE, 6/14/16: I have since learned that I absolutely should not have liberated these nightcrawlers as they are an invasive species that can harm the native wildflower population and change the composition of the forest floor. Read more here. My apologies. I really am ashamed of my ignorance!

UPDATE, 4/11/16: It seems I’m destined to uncover little critters.  Today, trying to lift a piece of plastic (which I have since learned is irretrievably buried in the sand), I found a most impressive wolf spider.  He wasn’t inclined to have his picture taken, so I had to chase him around a bit. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from arachnophobia. (To be honest, I only mentioned that last bit because I have to take advantage of the few times Greek comes in handy).

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Teasel

Teasel is what is called a “noxious weed.”  Spiny throughout, from leaf to stem to seed pod, it grows tall, branches out, and lasts through winter as a brown, hollow version of itself. Even as I trample it, it catches and tears at me, scratching my hands, pulling at my boiled wool jacket, yanking my hair.  It shreds holes in my garbage bag, too, forcing me to abandon my trash-gathering task earlier than planned, but it’s hard to resist venturing into the thistle, when tattered plastic flaps from its bones like a poor man’s banner.

The Worst Kind of Trash

 

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I referred in an earlier post to my past identity as a Classical Archaeologist, but I failed to mention my favorite subject and place.  Researching my master’s thesis, which focused on ancient cultural perspectives on drinking, brought me to Ukraine, where Greeks settled on the Black Sea and came into contact with the native nomadic Scythians, who ruled the steppes from the 7th to 3rd centuries B.C.  The Scythians, and the gorgeous golden loot they left behind in their graves (burial mounds called kurhany or kurgans), have been the subject of many exhibitions, including “Sycthian Gold” at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland in 2000. Ukraine’s history is fascinating, but its countryside, cut through by the Dniepr River, is equally so.

The issues that the country currently faces are far beyond the scope and focus of this blog, but there is one glaring overlap of concern.  On April 28, 1986, almost exactly 30 years ago, an accident occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, in what was then Soviet Ukraine, that spewed contaminated radioactive waste over a large swath of the surrounding region. The people that lived in the region (which includes part of modern Belarus) were eventually evacuated, and the subsequent “exclusion zone” has existed without humans ever since.  Other, wilder animals have since returned and multiplied to fill the void.  It is an amazing place to see now, but we still don’t know what it will really mean for these animals to live in a place that we have, so literally, trashed.

I feel as if I’ve strayed far from the Monocacy, but looking for beauty in disaster, questioning our human influence on nature, those are some reasons why I write.  And when someone shared with me this story from Reuters, although it focuses on the zone in Belarus, I felt that I should pass it on.  The pictures and video are, like Ukraine, heartbreakingly complicated and beautiful.

 

Trashology

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Yesterday, just for fun, I recorded the brand of every piece of trash I gathered.  I was exploring new territory, an open meadow with lots of prickly shrubs that I usually avoid (see the sign above), and the quantity of cups and cans overwhelmed me.  There was much more than I could carry:

Deer Park Water

Mountain Dew (Diet and otherwise, many times over)

Dairy Queen

Sheetz

Monster Energy

Bud Light

Wegman’s

Harris Teeter (migrating trash, apparently)

Powerade

7-11

Coca Cola

Domino’s

Olive Garden

Utz

Starbucks (for Tammy, whoever and wherever she is)

Pepsi

Tropicana

Rockin’ Refuel

Fanta (orange)

A&W Cream Soda

Gatorade

McDonald’s

Rita’s Italian Ice

I brought all of these home, some for the trash can, but most for recycling.  Unfortunately, the city only gathers the recycling every other week, so I always end up filling the recycling can, bin and extra cardboard boxes of my own to overflowing.  I’m a little concerned about how much more trash warmer weather will generate. I might have to start begging my neighbors for recycling space.

The Thing with Feathers

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Juncos and friends braving the blizzard of 2016

When I was a little girl and people asked what animal I would like to be, which, for some reason, they did quite often, I would always answer, “A swan.” Likely I was influenced by fairy tale drawings (what was a castle, after all, without a swan swimming in its lake, preferably at sunset?) and at least a little by E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. The swan, to me, was the epitome of beauty and elegance, with a potential for a brilliant future, and, of course, it could swim or fly with equal grace.

When I grew a little older, I began to find the swan and bit too ostentatious, and, by the time I was a teenager, desiring total anonymity and feeling very small and frightened, I decided that I would rather be a mouse. Sometime in my thirties, although people had stopped asking, I decided again that I would like to be a bird, but not a swan. Instead, I would like to be a small bird, a common bird, one that is much stronger and and more interesting than people assume.  Maybe a chickadee, like those I watched endure Minnesota winters with cheerful fortitude, fluffed up among pine branches in their small black caps, or a junco, like a little gentleman in a gray tuxedo, so dapper and sprightly, even in the midst of a blizzard. I’m not sure, but I do admire them. And I wish that I could fly.

Because of my affinity for birds, I watch for them, and observe them, and, on a separate page on this blog, record them.  Today was a particularly good day for spotting birds at the Monocacy.  Besides the usual Robins, Red-wings, and Cardinals, I saw an American Goldfinch, an Eastern Bluebird, a few Tree Swallows, a pair of Canada Geese (accompanied, for some reason, by a bachelor Mallard), a Red-tailed Hawk, some noisy Crows, and a wading bird and woodpecker that were just too far away for sure identification.  Honestly, I was so distracted that I left quite a bit of trash on the ground. But, unlike the birds, it’s not going anywhere, and neither am I.  For now.

The Monocacy Rocks

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I should be writing about the fairyland that the wild blooming bluebells have made of “the island,” but it’s just too cold.  Instead, let’s talk about geology.

Referring to my copy of Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. by John Means (Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2010), I can tell you that the Monocacy River, which drains most of the Frederick Valley, is situated on Cambrian Frederick Limestone as it flows through the city and its immediate environs. As I walk with my sons along the river’s shores, sometimes under tall embankments created by years of flooding, we pick up lots of quartz and limestone.  My oldest son has become skilled at skipping the flatter pieces, even managing to eke out  5-7 jumps from large 5-pounders. Over the weekend we veered off our usual path and stopped at some very striking limestone formations that jutted out about 15 feet over the water.  While my son found huge rocks to roll into the river – the splash was marvelous from such a drop – I found a McDonald’s cup.  I hope it was iced tea that I dumped out of it.

Just put the trash down and…

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It’s been a bit cold lately, but, despite historic winds, also vividly clear and sunny.  When I went for a walk this morning it was in the 40’s, which didn’t stop any of the wildlife from going about their spring business.  In a marsh a pair of Canada geese were blaring their horns at each other, barely succeeding in drowning out the insistent territorial buzzes of the red-wing blackbirds; a groundhog cautiously popped his head out of a hole on an embankment; an audacious mockingbird cycled repeatedly through his vast songbook from the top of a sycamore tree; and more than one cottontail noisily fled from me through the underbrush.  There was, however, at least one creature hiding from the unseasonable temperatures.  Beneath a a scrap of thick, back plastic, I found a wee beastie coiled up in a loose spiral: a baby garter snake too cold even to be bothered by me.  After taking a picture (which required that I bend down only inches away from him), I recovered the poor cold-blooded baby with the plastic.  Because today it was more humane not to pick up the trash.