Four Feet on the Monocacy

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Yesterday was a good day for sitting by the river. It was warm, and I had my binoculars, lots of trash bags, and only my younger son with me. The older was in the mountains with his father and our younger dog (who, as it turns out, was dodging hunter’s bullets), and, when I took out the leash before our walk, our old labrador had cracked open her eyes, sighed and given me the most rueful expression a dog could muster. I took pity and, with one boy and no dogs, found enough peace to sit down with my binoculars and look for birds.

It’s a time of transition. The noisy red-winged blackbirds have left the marshes, replaced by finches and sparrows and other lesser-seen migrants feasting on the seeds of spent grasses and wildflowers. My favorite juncos have reappeared on my deck, looking for the seed I had kept tossed across it last winter and spring. Just for them (and the cardinals, finches and increasingly vocal squirrels), I resumed the custom last week. Every day now, it feels as if I’m having old friends over at the house.

On the river yesterday, I saw chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, goldfinches, chipping sparrows, house finches, robins, cardinals, crows, a kingfisher and a red-tailed hawk. In other words, nothing new or remarkable enough to be of interest to my younger son, who was contenting himself with styling swords and spears out of branches. Then, just as I was giving up my search (because this is always the way and is so narratively handy), I saw something large moving on the opposite bank of the river. Thinking that it might be a wild turkey, I grabbed my binoculars, only to realize, as it further emerged from the trees, that it was a fox.

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As it happens, I am uncommonly fond of foxes, a fact for which, I am ashamed to say, Disney must either be blamed or credited. When I was a girl, I fell in love with the animated Robin Hood of Walt Disney, who, as you may remember, was drawn as a handsome, well-spoken, red fox. Likely this early crush was only exacerbated by Wes Anderson’s stop-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is chock-full of lovely foxes (including the title character, voiced by George Clooney). Of course, they’re beautiful, interesting creatures all on their own (if you’re not raising chickens). Lots of nature photographers and videographers have caught them adeptly diving for mice in the snow or slinking about with their long tails held low and keen eyes high. So, of course, I was overjoyed when I saw this fox prowling along the shores of the Monocacy.

After I satisfied my own hungry eyes, I quietly alerted my younger son, who took the binoculars and held on to them until the fox disappeared into the distance. While he watched, he hushed me when I tried to speak or move and was clearly as mesmerized as I was. Even after the fox was gone, we both just smiled at each other as if we shared some special secret. Or at least I thought so.

Until my son looked at me seriously and said, “Now I’m gonna have the song What Does the Fox Say? stuck in my head the rest of the day.”

Sublimity, meet the Internet.

Cooler Reflections

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I’m sitting on the thick branch of a fallen tree, perched just above the waters of the Monocacy and hidden by dangling bunches of ripe pokeberries. The berries are poisonous to us but good food for the birds, who already have consumed about half of the deep purple fruits, leaving the empty magenta stems as simple ornaments.

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There is a pair of chickadees in a nearby tree, their voices more obvious than their tiny feathered forms. They hang from the japanese hop vines, eating their ripe seeds. If I sit still long enough, I’ll see more birds, like the downy woodpecker that just stopped to inspect the maple tree on my right.

It’s perfect sit-and-watch weather, cool and clear and mostly free of the annoying flying insects that plague late summer days. Of course. It’s fall now, but early in the season, when most everything is still clothed in green and the crickets sing at night. Butterflies and moths are making their final rounds among the goldenrod, asters and sneezeweed, and wooly caterpillars are appearing on walking paths.

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At home I’m harvesting the last of my tomatoes and collecting seeds from my zinnias for next year’s spring planting. I hear people speak of spring as the season of hope, but in some ways fall is even more so. Despite everything.

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.